Even as a child, I was fascinated by wild things. Some of my first memories are those of my dad marching me into the wilds of the jungle and pointing out troops of monkeys, kaleidoscopes of butterflies, and schools of fish.
The flapping of wings intrigued me most. It didn’t matter if the wings were those of birds, bats, or dragonflies. Birds, however, were my favorite. I found it amazing that they were so free. Free to fly, to soar, to go wherever they wanted or yield to wherever the wind took them. These little fragile creatures made of hollow bones and feathers, although so free, could suddenly plummet back to earth and break into a million pieces. Hollow bones snapped, the ability to fly, the one thing that made them so free, snatched so easily. But still they rose bravely into the air. As if suspended by an invisible wire, they rose. They rose.
I will never forget seeing the spotted wood owls in the driveway at school. I was four. And I was excited. My dad had told me about them several times before we actually went to see them. He had heard them hooting and seen them flying in the long driveway some evenings, but not all, around seven. That year the spotted wood owls had come back to nest in the broad rain trees lining the driveway and they had a chick. That evening I was allowed to stay up past my bedtime, an event memorable in itself though. I don’t actually remember the drive in the car to the owls, just the excitement. The excitement and the eyes. The big, black, bright eyes that were framed by the beautiful dark brown face. The three owls sat side by side together on the branch with the little, fluffy owlet nestled safely between them. The wind had a damp smell to it. It was a smell that hung on the breeze just as the owls’ deep and powerful hoot did. It echoed through the whistling leaves. Excited, I wiggled my toes in my shoes. The baby owl called shrilly for food and looked over, expectantly, at its mother and father, who both in turn returned their gaze. In the dark their eyes glowed with magic.
From that moment I became a self-appointed crusader and protector of the birds, and my first battle was to stop other junior school students from touching the pink-necked green pigeons’ nest. My friends, Jasmin, Maya, and Avni, were also involved. Avni mostly tagged along when it suited, and Maya went along with anything. Jasmin, however, was my best friend and my equal partner when it came to our frequent adventures.
Drama unfolded because other junior school students didn’t know not to touch nests, which surprised me, because my dad had always told me not to touch the nests. Lifting me up onto the tops of his shoulders to see the birds’ nests, high up, he’d say, “Don’t touch it,” firmly but softly. He has always had a funny way of being able to do that. Then he’d say, “You know why?” I would shake my head. “Because then the mummy and daddy bird will leave the baby and you don’t want that, do you?” And I’d shake my head again. It stunned me that other kids didn’t know not to touch the nest and that their parents had never told them. It wasn’t the kids I needed to worry about though. It was the cat.
One break time, the cat pounced and snatched the egg from the nest. I blamed myself for that and I thought that I should have done more to stop the cat from eating one of the eggs. We took the remaining egg to the science lab to put in the incubator, thinking the parents had abandoned it because of the cat. Maybe they had, maybe they hadn’t; we took it upon ourselves to intervene.
For the next three weeks the egg remained precariously balanced between two sticks of the tattered nest. The whitish-pink speckled egg was cool and just a little rough to the touch.
I would visit that incubator every day. Before school. After school. And every single break. I’d open the door and stretch up on my tippy-toes to see the silver tray that housed the egg, nestled in the remains of the nest. But the egg never hatched. Sometimes my friends would come. No matter how much we hoped it would, the egg never hatched. So I would close the door.
I could picture the little baby bird clearly in my mind. It flapped. And it cried. In my mind’s eye I saw its oversized head fitted with a pair of equally oversized eyes that had not yet opened the whole way. Over time, the chick would gain strength and size, its eyes opening, and the body of the chick growing in around the eyes, making the chick look less alien-like, its feathers shooting, swelling, and sprouting. In my imagination the baby bird was getting ready to fly away from its prison of metal and disinfectant.
Then one day it did hatch. Well, it split really. The shell was smooth and breakable, cracked in several different directions. The slightly decomposed body of the chick was left exposed on the tray, the short stubs of feathers sprouting. The stubs that would one day have enabled it to fly free. All of the features were fully formed, ready to hatch. But it hadn’t. The eyes were closed. Never to open. Not to hold the beauty that the eyes of the owls had held.
Despite my constant care and attention, the baby bird died and I blamed myself for this failure of the nest. Yet, this did not affect my interest in birdlife very much, it just made me more cautious and taught me not to become so attached to the often cruel fate of many nests. It took until grade seven for me to really look back on the story and realize that it wasn’t my fault that the chick didn’t hatch. I had to learn that nature takes its course. Things die. Sometimes, this is just meant to happen, and not much can be done about it.
Just as eggs and chicks die, friendships do too. My friend Jasmin, who was my best friend all the way through junior school, was no longer my friend in grade six. She wanted nothing to do with me and no longer wanted to be my friend, and nothing I did could really change her way of thinking. In much the same way I wasn’t able to influence what happened to the egg, try as I might, I couldn’t persuade Jasmin to hold true to our friendship. Strangely, the day I came to this realization was the day the cat dropped dead. On the AstroTurf. The boys in my class told me. They said he just fell over on the football field. He didn’t get up.
Nature’s way or retribution? Probably nature’s way.
* * *
These days, another set of eyes haunt me. This time those of Burmese owls. These eyes, however, are trapped. In a cage. These eyes, all cramped close together, sad, and frightened and desperate. They are to be sold so that they can be released and people can watch “their” owl fly away. And that is just what these owls want to do. They want to fly away from the soiled little cage that is keeping them there. None of the magic that was evident in the eyes of the owls in the school driveway is captured in the eyes of those Burmese owls. I wished that the wind would blow, that the cage door would swing open, and that they would alight from the sad little cage and return to where they belonged.
The solution to the problem, unfortunately, is not as simple as the cage door just swinging open.
On that Mandalay teak bridge, a wrinkled old lady sits on a wobbly stool behind the small assortment of wooden cages that imprison these owls. She beckons the passersby to stop and mutters, “One dollar and I let the owl go.” She stands and pushes the cage towards me, hoping I will part with my dollar and release one of the owls. The magic that I had seen in the owls’ eyes in the driveway was not in the eyes of these owls. Some of them had scratches on their faces and their eyes seemed to scream with pain, fear, and anxiety.
I look back up into the eyes of the old lady. This life has not been kind to her, she sits all day in the sun, she finds these owls as babies and trains them to always return to her when they are released. How many children must this woman support? How many grandchildren? How many have died? But this life has not been kind to the owls either. Their freedom, stolen. Their spirits, broken. Their enslaved life spent making an income for this woman. I still find myself shaking my head. My eyes drift away from the owls and the old woman. No one is a winner in this situation. The owls will stay indentured and this woman will stay poor, selling owls on the side of the famous teak bridge of Mandalay. The old lady gives up on me, she too can read eyes. She knows what mine are saying. She will not make a sale with me.
She now turns her attention to some locals and speaks in Burmese. The people pull out a crumpled note and hand it over to the lady. They point at a chosen owl in one of the cages, the lady pulls it out. The owl lets out a frightened chirp as the lady’s gnarled, broken, dirt-encrusted hands curl around its body. She throws it up into the air. It is released. Its fragile wings beat faster and faster away, taking flight from the lady. For just a moment, it is free. But these owls are trained, I remind myself. They have been trained since they were snatched from their nests and like slaves serve this woman, and they will always return to this woman. The Buddhist Burmese believe that by releasing something that is caged they gain religious merit. The owl is a symbol of wisdom and freedom, in stark contrast to their reality. It is this belief that keeps these owls here and with this woman who is only trying to make a living.
Since my first sighting of the spotted wood owls when I was four, I look for them often. The volume of excitement may have changed, but the magic in their eyes, and in turn in my eyes, has not. I don’t think that will ever change for me. At least, I hope not. It may not be the same for other people, but the four-yearold who first looked up at the owls, her toes wiggling in her shoes from excitement, still watches patiently. This time her thirteen-year-old self watches as the three owls look down on her from above. The owls seem to say, “Who’s this?” as if they don’t know. Their black eyes blink.
There are fewer branches and trees for the owls to live in now, fewer places for them to look down onto little four-year olds, so those children can admire their beauty, to know what these owls look like in the wild and not from behind bars and glass walls.
Behind bars and glass walls the owls’ eyes have none of the shine that they should. Bars only hold frightened owls, awaiting a shortened lifetime of servitude. They are the prisoners that generate someone’s income and create pity from naive tourists. No one seems to be able to leave nature be. Their trees are taken, leaving high-rises, roads, and our own school in their wake. Owls can’t live in apartments, they live in trees, big and sprawling ones. They don’t live in cages. They don’t live or die trapped in incubators that smell strongly of disinfectant. They smell just of dirt and damp, of light and dark and the late night hoot that hangs on the breeze. Just as the silver of the butterflies’ wings brushes away as you touch them, every animal does the same, when nature is touched, just more quietly. More subtly. The vibrancy and the colors slowly fade away. You can’t catch it, you can’t hold it in your hands, because the color is already flying away with the winds. But when left alone, when nature is left untouched and unaffected, it shines through everything, just as the light catches the eyes of owls.