owl feathers

Owl Feathers

by Ruby Holsenbeck

Platform 5

The owl offers for those who have it as a personal totem the inspiration and guidance necessary to deeply explore the unknown and the magic of life.

I walk down the highway today as cars rush by, travelers for the holiday hurrying to get to their destinations. It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and traffic is heavy. Across the road, I see a dead bird with distinctive feathers. During a lull, I trot to the other side for a closer a look and find it’s an owl. To be exact, a barred owl. It lies belly up, its wings splayed. It saddens me to see it like this, abandoned among wadded McDonald’s bags, flattened Bud Lite cans, and other rudely discarded litter. Having nothing to put it in, I walk on, sure to come upon a wind-blown plastic bag and hoping the owl will still be here when I return.

As I turn down Covey Road and head over where a narrow creek bubbles and runs under the pavement, I’m reminded of one evening when coming home at dusk. Sweetgum leaves drifted down as I got out of my Jeep to close my gate behind me, and I saw a barred owl sitting on one of my fence posts. Afraid I would scare it off, I got in and shut the door with a quiet click. The owl moved its head, its eyes unflinching, its feathers blending perfectly against the background of pine and brush. It felt surreal and sacred.

I crept forward just as it spread its wings and took flight, its wingspan stretching a full yard, its wings almost motionless. It sailed right above my windshield as I drove forward then swept deep into a thick clump of pines edging the forest, disappearing as the dusk gave way to night. As I juggled groceries and keys, I found a spotted feather on the ground, affirmation for me that spiritual magic was in play. Inside, I placed it on a shelf with a wren’s nest and later found it to be one of a screech owl. Later that night, as I sat on my back deck and sipped on a glass of Merlot, I heard a pair of barred owls speaking to each other the enchanting and phantasmagoric language of animal spirit.

The owl spirit animal is emblematic of a deep connection
with wisdom and intuitive knowledge.
As the owl guides your steps,
you are likely to develop an appreciation for life’s magic.

I’ve found that I believe in magic. Not necessarily the “Wooooo” kind, but the empyreal, unexplainable kind. And I believe that feathers hold a particular spiritual magic from the universe or even God. Maybe it’s because the carrier travels so close to the heavens. Hundreds of these feathers adorn my house and not just owl feathers. Some rest in washed-out jars, others in cleaned-out candle jars with tops, and more in dishes on shelves or arranged like bouquets in vases. Feathers pull me to them. I spot even the tiniest ones in the grass just when I need them. Some may feel this is taboo or coincidence. For me they mean more than just Hansel and Gretel crumbs. Feathers are things divinely sent.

A few weeks ago, I waited in line to pick up my great-niece from kindergarten. As McKayla scrambled into the Jeep, she said excitedly, “RuRu, give me my book bag. Hurry! I have you a pa-rize!”

She scrounged through her book bag and unearthed a bent and smudged feather. “Look! I found this for you on the playground. It was dirty, but I wiped it off! It has stripes!”

“Oh, McKayla, I love it! And it’s special because you gave it to me,” I exclaimed back to her as I took the feather from her fingers.

Knowing I collect feathers, she smiled into the rearview mirror while I tucked it into a clip on my sun visor. Later that evening, I looked it up. A barn owl feather. Like a pebble along a pathway leading the traveler, owl feathers especially seem to bring a connection with the beyond.

A feather from an owl symbolizes wisdom, the ability to see things normally,
a creature of the night – silent and swift.
The significance of finding an owl feather symbolizes the
owl is wishing to work with you on matters of spiritual growth and healing.

My maternal grandparents lived on a small farm on the southwest side of the county where I grew up. As youngsters, my cousin and I often spent the night with my grandparents on weekends. In summer, Granny opened the windows, letting the country night blend with our dreams, coyotes howling or deer blowing warnings to their young. An occasional chuck-will’s-widow or whippoorwill’s cry sometimes lulled us to sleep those nights tucked up in one of Granny’s quilts, snuggled on her feather-filled ticking mattress, heads buried in down-stuffed pillows.

Once in a while, I heard the haunting and harsh screech of barn owls over in the wooden barn where the mules rested and the cows came to feed. Even as an adult, I still hear the familiar barn owl sounds in the woods near my home or down toward that old barn, perhaps descendants of those I heard as a child. Everything has the possibility of connection.

My friend Betty, who just moved to Lubbock, used to live in town in an old Milledgeville neighborhood and had a parliament of barred owls in her backyard. One evening, we quietly sat at the edge of dusk listening for them. At first, they flew from tree to tree to settle on limbs, welcoming the descending darkness, their time for feeding. Then came the eerie calling. It wasn’t the hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo (who-cooks-for-you) of which I was accustomed to hearing in the woods near my home, but one more resembling a band of monkeys. We didn’t speak, feeling our voices would sound foreign and obtrusive in their wild and primitive world. The sacredness of the evening and the presence of the owls seemed something beyond our human realm, a fragmented glimpse into an ethereal or ancient place. Their feathers often peppered her yard, and I remember seeing a few on side tables in her living room, possibly as tokens of kinship she felt also. I wonder now if she felt, too, they were important and took them with her in her move.

I collect not only owl feathers but also those of hawks, wrens, sparrows, cardinals, blue jays, even seagulls and crows, and even of the Canada geese that come to flock and feed around the ponds, any one that happens to be directly in my path. I’ve thought of creating a huge feather spiral on canvas or making a gigantic feather with possibly a length of bamboo for the rachis, sewing each feather on by hand to give it even more spiritual regard.

Along the side road where I now walk, I remember coming up on a rather large owl that had been hit. Like the one today, its wings lay perfectly on the grass. A member of the Navajo tribe, Asdzání, would say that in her culture birds of prey that have deceased should be left untouched. “We’d have to bury the bird and then have a two-day purification ceremony for having touched it,” she claims. “Besides being extremely taboo in my tribe, it is also highly illegal. It is a serious federal offense to possess any part or portion of a bird of prey.” I would have not taken even a single stray feather, feeling it irreverent. The next time I walked that way, all evidence of the dead owl was gone.

In Greek mythology, the owl is the symbol for Athena, the goddess of wisdom.

As I turn around to head back toward the highway at the lower creek that rushes over rock and root, I approach a spot where planted pine is being harvested for lumber and mulch. I find a plastic bag caught on a twig, go to untangle it, and cram it into my pocket. Although I feel there is something unsacred about putting the owl into plastic, it’s the only way I can get it from the side of the highway. I can’t carry it by its feathers or talons making it look like something hunted down and hauled home. I’ve sometimes thought that maybe I have a Native American connection. Not from ancestry per se, but from a deeper thread, a type of spiritual kinship, something I can’t quite explain. This strange connection won’t allow me to disrespect a thing as sacred as an owl. As I walk uphill, I think of how this spiritual lineage is a thing that I know through my soul. I’ve been drawn to them like I am drawn to feather-finding, and this has proven true on more than one occasion.

Native Americans believe that birds and feathers carry stories,
mystical meaning and even magic.
Their beliefs are based on Animism which embodies the spiritual idea that all-natural
things within the universe, including birds, have souls or spirits.

On a weekend several years ago, I attended a local Native American Festival. As I wandered through the venues, I found myself looking at various art and several crafts to find something extraordinary. Around past the common array of earrings and dream-catchers stood a simple display of artwork, prints of drawings and paintings by a Native American artist, Rex Begaye. One drawing drew me to it, a simple pen and ink edged with watercolor of an old Native American woman, deep in thought, weathered and wise. Soon, a woman about my age with long, salt-and-peppered hair stepped up and introduced herself as Barbara Begaye. I told her that the picture of the old woman at the bottom of the display seemed to be speaking to me, and she began telling me her story.

“She was an elder of her tribe,” she said. “She was gentle yet strong, a leader with a commanding and powerful spirit. She lived to be 102 years old, and when she passed away her tribe commissioned my husband to do this portrait.”

I asked her the elder’s name (but somehow I knew it before she ever told me).

“Grandma Ruby,” she said. I was so taken aback that I truly had a premonition, but mostly I was in awe. There was a distinct connection with Grandma Ruby on some other dimension. When I told her my name, she did not seem amazed but more as if she expected it. “The prints of Grandma Ruby are numbered,” she continued. “Rex allowed only fifty, and this one is already sold to one of the members of the tribe.” I nodded. She then told me the price, which was way more than I expected. Disappointed, I told her that I probably could not afford it.

“Let me talk to Rex about your buying a different kind of print. We could ship it to you later. Come back in about half an hour.”

Feeling deflated, I went off to contemplate my problem. I simply had to have one of those prints! As I walked along, I looked down and saw a single feather lying on the ground. A couple of more steps, and then I found another. I believe that found feathers are sent for particular purposes. Natalia Kuna, an Australian psychic medium and light-worker, would tell me: “You drew the feather to magnetize towards you and your reality. It entered your field as a response to your call to the universe, so you manifested it energetically.”

When I returned to the booth thirty minutes later, Barbara introduced me to a dark, mustached Native American man with a gentle voice and long salt-and-peppered braided hair. “This is my husband, Rex,” she said, and I shook his hand, feeling its firmness and warmth. I told him my name and that I was convinced that the spirit of his rendition of “Grandma Ruby” was here to protect and guide me. He, like Barbara, didn’t seem surprised.

“I am going to offer you an ‘open print,’ one not numbered, and it’ll be half the price.” Rex talked to me in his soft voice, heavy with accent.

“Thank you so much!” I agreed and gave him my credit card. Two weeks later I received my print by mail. “Grandma Ruby” hangs framed over my bed bringing with her protection and light.

I recently read that Rex passed away on Christmas Eve 2013, less than a month before his sixty-first birthday. One of his followers says of him, “We know he will continue to walk in beauty.” Maybe he walks with me today. The ethereal plane knows no boundaries.

When the spirit of this animal, the owl, guides you,
you can see the true reality, beyond illusion and deceit.

I cross the highway as soon as I top the end of Covey Road. Traffic still is heavy with people traveling, and I have to scurry across to get to the other side. I see one of the owl’s talons sticking out from the cluster of feathers in the clump of grass. As I lift it to put it into the bag, I find that its wings are stiffened in the flight position and that its skull is flat. In my opinion, this death is a waste of beautiful creation.

I gather it carefully into the bag. One of its stiffened wings sticks out where the handle holes are, so I walk with the bag close to my body. Knowing it’s illegal and feeling also it’s irreverent, I hurry into my gate and close it behind me, securing my own safety and my owl’s.

If you have an owl as a totem or spirit animal,
you probably like to explore the unknown.
You’re likely to have the ability to see what’s usually hidden to most.

The darkness gathers around the trees. I go down to where my fence meets the edge of the forest and try to dig a hole to bury it, but with our recent lack of rain the ground is hard as stone. I scratch an indention with a rake and place the owl with its wings spread then pile leaves on with my hands, praying for its spirit to be released into the woods. When the mound of leaves is sufficient to cover the owl in its entirety I gather limbs from the edge of the woods, forming a type of tent crisscrossed over and over it in a tepee-shape.

I walk to the porch and lay the shovel and rake next to the doorway. I’ll wash them both in the daylight. Emotionally and physically exhausted, I go inside to clean up. After putting all of my clothes in the wash and bathing, honoring the cleansing the Navajo claim should happen, I light a candle and settle in to listen to a Native American flute CD. As the notes of the flute surround me, I ask the owl to protect me in return. I feel its message back as a single note rises then mingles with candle smoke in the air.

About the Author

Ruby Holsenbeck

Ruby Holsenbeck has an MFA in Creative Writing from Georgia College & State University and focuses mostly on non-fiction writing centering around nature and personal experience. However, she occasionally creates fiction stories that stem from imaginative scenarios that have unexpected endings or no true closure leaving the ending to the mind of the reader.