If you hop on a bike in central Amsterdam and head east out of town, toward the windmill that’s now a microbrewery, past the Flevopark and into a small community of trailer homes between the bike path and the Rijnkanaal, and take the second left into a cul-de-sac, you will see a most remarkable sight. Tucked under a tree, between the pavement and a self-built log cabin, next to the ducks and the piglet, is an owl. A big one.
Now, owls aren’t rare, but you don’t see them all that often. Certainly not 15 minutes by bike from the centre of a city of a million people. But this one’s here, all the time, because he’s privately owned.
He’s a beauty, with orange eyes, and a head that swivels with such ease it reminds me of how inflexible I’ve become as I grow older. He’s an oehoe, or a Eurasian eagle-owl, a species similar to the great horned owl, that lives from Morocco to Norway, from Siberia and southern China to Japan, and everywhere in between, even Iraq. They sit about 60 cm tall, have the colouring of a golden eagle, and ears that look like very bushy eyebrows that extend past the skull.
When I first saw this owl, nearly five years ago, he was tethered to the canal side of the log house, which had just been put together. I used to ride by the owl when I needed wonder, or calm, and seeing him, sitting silently, slowly blinking, always did the trick. Then one day, I rode by, and he was gone. It was fall and the leaves were just staring to fall, and I thought he’d somehow broken free and flown away. His perch was empty, his tether hanging below it, swaying back and forth in the breeze.
It was only a couple of months later, when all the leaves were gone and the trees on the property were a thin lattice of empty branches instead of a shield of green leaves, that I saw him again. He’d been moved to the back of the house, where he now sits in a large cage. I found the back way in, through the cul-de-sac, and had a look, just to make sure.
I found a great horned owl once, by the side of the road, in broad daylight, on the day that my grandmother died. Just sitting. And staring at me. One of its wings looked strange, like the owl was sitting on it. He was calm, didn't seem concerned that I was close. He just looked at me and blinked once, slowly. Like I had no right to have done all the stupid things I've ever done in my life. I stopped by a nearby ranger station to tell them about the owl. The ranger looked at me and smiled, and said, "oh, yes... the one who makes you feel like you haven’t done anything useful in your whole life?" I nodded. He said, "alright then, I'll go take a look." And he pulled up his collar and smoothed down his shirt and straightened his cuffs, as if he was on his way to defend his character against something he hadn't ever expected to have to defend his character against.
A couple of days later, I was returning home from a bike ride, and found the same owl sitting on the railing of my veranda, as though waiting for me. He looked right into me as I approached, and I stopped walking when I was a few feet away, because I wanted him to keep looking; I didn’t want him to fly away.
Every day for a week that owl came back to the railing when I was out of the house, and waited for me until I got back. It was eerie. I thought maybe it was my grandmother, saying goodbye. So I did, and I never saw that owl again. I still visit the oehoe regularly. I don’t think this one’s my grandmother, but it reminds me of a time when a wild thing let me get close – the kind of wild thing you don’t see too often in your life. So I keep going back. One wise look from him puts everything in perspective, brings me sanity when the world feels like it’s more and more careering toward anarchy.
I know it’s hypocritical – after all, keeping an owl tethered or caged seems cruel, but because the owl is tethered, I can visit it. This is not lost on me. I think about it every time I see the owl. And I don’t think it’d be crazy to say that the owl knows that. It’s clear in the way he looks straight at me. Straight into me. Asking me to answer for everything I’ve done.