Hearing the Owl

First published in Ireland in The Haibun Journal 1:1, April 2019, pages 38–41. An early draft of the prose was originally written in an email message sent to Howard Lee Kilby on 14 June 2006, with the poems added the next day, plus many edits in 2006, 2007, 2009, 2015, and 2016. And in case it’s useful to know, “Kwakiutl” is pronounced as kwä'keeOO"tul. See also the six postscripts at the end, all of which are deeply personal to me.       +       +       +       +       +       +       +       +       +

        “A place is a story happening many times.” —Kwakiutl Tribe

One of my favourite books is Margaret Craven’s I Heard the Owl Call My Name. It’s a short novel about a priest whose Bishop sends him by boat to his hardest parish when he learns that the priest has but a short time to live. The young priest travels to Kingcome Inlet, deep in the remote north-coast waterways of British Columbia, amid the Kwakiutl natives who have accepted Anglican beliefs but still value their native traditions. They hold potlatch ceremonies to welcome the changing seasons and to give thanks for bountiful fishing, bury their dead in trees, and gather for mass on Sundays. It’s a tale of cultural encounter, an unexpected kind of love story, an account of difference and similarity, of aging and agelessness, of life and death, and ultimately a bittersweet tale of belonging. It has brought me to tears each time I’ve turned a particular page.

        half-carved totem—

        the warmth of wood chips

        falling through my fingers

I’ve enjoyed this book numerous times, including once reading it aloud on a car trip across the Sierra Nevada. I also read it when attending Expo 86 in Vancouver, British Columbia. I had the book in my backpack, and would pull it out while waiting in long lines. My favourite pavilion that summer was “Spirit Lodge,” sponsored by General Motors. The theme of Expo 86 was transportation and communication, and each pavilion outdid itself with bigger and better technology than the next, with interactive video projection walls and magnetically levitated high-speed trains. But the GM pavilion was the opposite of that—the utmost of simplicity, and straight out of Kwakiutl culture. The pavilion had a square shape, with a ramp around the perimeter that gently squared its way upward. On the way, amid deep-green spruce boughs, draping moss, and recreations of old-growth cedar forests, the walls showed paintings and carvings telling Kwakiutl history and mythology. The symbols on the totems became more engaging when you learned the stories and beliefs behind the eagles, bears, and salmon.

        muggy afternoon—

        an endangered species

        pacing at the zoo

What a pleasure to be reading that book in this pavilion. But the best part awaited us at the top of the ramp. We were ushered into a theatre, set up like a native longhouse or spirit lodge, where a shaman, live on stage, started telling Kwakiutl stories. For centuries, and even today, the Kwakiutl always wished for a magical canoe where they could recite an incantation, dip their paddle into the lake or ocean, and instantly travel to wherever they wanted to be—or to be with someone they loved. We still want that magic today, to be beamed up from a distant planet where our spaceship orbits. While telling these stories, the shaman sat and stood and danced beside a fire pit. As he waved his hands, smoke from the fire changed shape and became the objects he described—a canoe, a grizzly, a soaring osprey. It was done with holographic projections, and it transfixed us. Ultimately, for me, it swept away all the technology that cluttered the Expo, luring the masses, including me. It pulled the hype back to its roots—to desire, a desire that every culture, no matter how old or young, wants to improve its communication, understanding, and wisdom—within its own community and in interaction with others. It pulled back the hype surrounding every culture’s pressing desire for easier transportation, not just because it might be done, but to fulfill those longings to be in loved places or with loved faces far away. Nothing has changed, and for me, making that connection between modern civilization and ancient civilizations was thanks to the Kwakiutl culture. I thought of the poet Marianne Moore and what really matters: “I shall be there when the wave has gone by.” At the end of the presentation, the shaman somehow disappeared from the stage as he and the smoke wafted away.

        breathless phone call—

        our baby’s first kick

        marked on the calendar

In 2006 I visited the University of British Columbia in Vancouver for a conference. At the university, Kwakiutl and the better-known and similar Haida cultures are heavily represented in one of the world’s most important museums—the Museum of Anthropology. It features the people who populated Cascadia’s endless coastal rainforests for millennia before Russian and European invasion, those delicate indigenous tribes, the first nations, and the animal, plant, and fish brothers with whom they lived harmoniously—the bears, the salmon, and the owls. The museum offers the reminder that this land is not ours, but theirs, that we are indeed still a sort of trespasser, an interloper, though we think we’re not. Huge wood carvings dwarf the visitor. Vibrant paintings in primal colours draw in the viewer, and it is hard to look away at the ocean views across Georgia Strait to the snow-capped mountains to the west and north. To visit the museum is transcendent and humbling, especially for me, ever the alien, a British citizen who became Canadian after living in Ghana and Australia, now living with a Japanese wife in the United States, having never voted, never served on a jury. But on this latest trip I didn’t visit the museum, not just because I didn’t have time, but because it would have made me sad—sad for wanting to communicate better with others and to be with loved ones more often—maybe even to the point of crying, to the point of drowning in that aching melancholic sadness of always wanting to belong.

        first warm night—

              the hoot of an owl

        penetrates my totem

Postscript 1

I’ve enjoyed a pleasant discovery regarding Margaret Craven (shown here), author of I Heard the Owl Call My Name. In April of 1998, with Kate Kordich, I had the honour of interviewing Janet Lewis, most famous as the author of The Wife of Martin Guerre (made into the movie Somersby, starring Jodie Foster), and herself the wife of famed poet and critic Yvor Winters (see “Enduring Imagist: An Interview with Janet Lewis (1899–1998)”). As it turned out, Margaret Craven was a tenant of Janet and Yvor for a time, in a house near Stanford University, where they also lived. They became friends, and Janet encouraged Margaret in her writing, and I believe mentored her to some degree. Margaret was originally from Helena, Montana. She graduated from high school in Bellingham, Washington, which obviously influenced her appreciation for the Pacific Northwest—in her novel Walk Gently This Good Earth she called the old-growth trees that cover the Cascade mountain range and its foothills “the greatest forest in the world.” Read more on Wikipedia about Margaret Craven and I Heard the Owl Call My Name.

—13 March 2019, on the 118th anniversary of Margaret Craven’s birth

Postscript 2

The following is an excerpt from an email message I wrote to Chuck Brickley after sending him a copy of the preceding haibun. Chuck is an American (and later Canadian) who for many decades lived in Hope, British Columbia, where I also used to live (“hope,” in fact, is my favourite word). I had just seen Chuck at the May 2019 Haiku Canada weekend at the University of British Columbia, meeting less than a ten-minute walk from the Museum of Anthropology, which once again I chose not to visit—but I know I soon will.

I actually left out one very personal detail in my haibun. In 1997, I was stuck in British Columbia for six months awaiting my H1 visa to return to the United States. I visited the Museum of Anthropology in late September that year, and was still waiting for my visa (yet still paying rent in California for all of those six months). In the museum, amid all the massive Haida wood sculptures, with the expansive view of the mountains across the water outside the huge windows, I remember coming to a realization that I could live here if my visa never came through. It was a point of acceptance that was profound for me, a powerful sense of social and spiritual belonging, inspired by native culture and its sense of belonging with the earth beneath its feet. That afternoon, I drove home to where I was staying, where a letter had arrived, that very day, announcing that my visa was approved. It was a deeply emotional moment for me, after six months of disruption and uncertainty, and that’s the real reason why it would be sad for me to revisit the museum again (as I mention in the haibun), perhaps because I turned my back on that acceptance, or so it might have seemed. And yet no. The larger acceptance was embracing what I had sought for half a year, yet also embracing the possibility of the other option too. I found myself capable of accepting everything. For me it was a moment of saying yes to life.

        I would also like to mention that the owl might be my totem animal, if I had one. In Manitoba one spring, I was hiking alone along the south shore of Clear Lake, at the edge of Riding Mountain National Park, east of Wasagaming. I walked around a bend of the trail and there, on a stump in front of me, not more than ten or fifteen feet away, at eye level, was a giant snowy owl. I stopped in my tracks. The bird did not move. We stared at each other for at least half an hour. It occasionally shifted a wing, or looked slightly to one side or the other, but mostly maintained its gaze straight at me. I shifted from foot to foot now and then too, but stayed as still as possible—not consciously at first, but because I was transfixed, instantly knowing that this was a rare close-up encounter with a majestic and solitary creature. Eventually I became aware that I wanted to finish my hike and be back in time for dinner with family and friends. I moved slightly forward, a step or two, but the bird did not move, continuing its wide-eyed stare at me. I stepped forward again, slowly and gently. And again. Then the bird smoothly stretched out its wings, at least a five-foot wingspan, made a silent surge of its wings and flew up to a distant tree top. I felt the breeze of its wings as it flew away.

—2 June 2019, Sammamish, Washington

Postscript 3

In a review of The Haibun Journal 1:1, 2019, edited by Sean O’Connor, reviewer Tony Beyer writes the following in Haibun Today 13:3, September 2019:

Another feature of this haibun collection is their consistent high standard—a credit to Sean O’Connor and to the authors. . . . [Various haibun] remind us of the origin of haibun in travel sketches and records of human or natural atmosphere. Combining some of these concerns, Michael Dylan Welch, in his “Hearing the Owl,” spins out the associations derived from a favourite book (Margaret Craven’s I Heard the Owl Call My Name) into a consideration of cultural traditions among the indigenous Kwakiutl of British Columbia. He muses on the way stories are told and signs become totems passed on into the future, history and mythology, visual art and more intimate personal experience. His words for visiting the UBC Museum of Anthropology, “transcendent and humbling,” draw these strands together into a reflection on what it means to belong among the succession of human inhabitants of a place.

—2 September 2019, Sammamish, Washington

Postscript 4

On 8 February 2022, my wife and I became United States citizens, after a two-year process, hundreds of pages of paperwork, and more than a month of anxiety preparing for our citizenship interviews. I still have my British and Canadian citizenship, but at last I am now a citizen of the country where I have spent the majority of my life. On 7 June 2022 (I’m still using the European way of giving dates), I was a featured reader at Seattle’s Hugo House literary center (note American spelling) with Lucien Zell, an American living in Prague. He titled our reading “Exiled Home,” and he didn’t know how meaningful that was for me, because I had spent decades of my life never fully belonging where I lived, always with a feeling of exile, of distance, of otherness. On the lectern I put up small flags for England, Canada, the United States, and Japan (the latter because my wife is Japanese and our kids are half Japanese, and for my many affinities for Japan). I mentioned that I had recently become a U.S. citizen and began my poetry reading by saying “Tonight is a reading that recognizes longing and belonging, and a longing to belong.” That’s been a theme of my life. Obtaining U.S. citizenship may not change that feeling, but perhaps it will, starting with the fact that I can now, for the first time in my life, vote in a national election in the country where I live (I was mostly too young to do that when I lived in Canada). And I can serve on a jury. If nothing else, I am a citizen of life, where everyone can belong, if they say yes to life as I have always tried to do, but for some people, finding belonging is a particular challenge. It has been a challenge for me for a very long time, and my poetry reading attempted to acknowledge this. I started the evening by sharing a poem by Rilke, “Go to the Limits of Your Longing.” Its closing lines are these, the “me” meaning God:       +


Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going. No feeling is final.

Don’t let yourself lose me.


Nearby is the country they call life.

You will know it by its seriousness.


Give me your hand.

—23 June 2022, Sammamish, Washington

Postscript 5

I always think of Vancouver whenever I hear Bruce Cockburns buoyant and transporting song, Wondering Where the Lions Are, perhaps because “The Lions” are a distinctive pair of mountains on Vancouver’s north shore. Vancouvers BC Lions football team in the Canadian Football League is also named for these mountains. That’s my own personal association, but there’s more to it than that. The Song Meanings website describes several other British Columbia references, such as “thousand-year-old petroglyphs” (bringing to mind BCs First Nations), “freighters . . . on the surface of the bay” (a common sight in Vancouver), and “Up among the firs where it smells so sweet” (suggesting the province’s boundless forests). The song is described as “a metaphor for no longer being afraid of death or [having] anxious thoughts about our limited time here on Earth,” as if life no longer had lions at the door—or at least that they aren’t “half as frightening as they were before.” It’s also about “seeing all this beauty and magnificence in the world” and about “being at peace with the world and the wonder of being alive.” The ecstasy of this song and “thinking about eternity” captures that deep feeling of belonging I felt on the day I describe when I visited the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in 1997, still in doubt about my visa but discovering a profound sense of belonging. In saying yes to life, the lions are not nearly as frightening as they were before.       +       +

—7 July 2022, Sammamish, Washington


Postscript 6

I’m sharing this link of a favourite song by Jane Siberry, “Bound by the Beauty,” because it speaks of what Bruce Cockburn’s song refers to as being “Up among the firs where it smells so sweet,” and the ecstasy of “thinking about eternity.” This, for me, is a saying yes to life. And this is the kind of belonging I crave—and find—in nature.       +

14 November 2022, Sammamish, Washington