Barred owls

Barred owls

I’ve been married now for over 21 years and last spring I fell in love. My marriage is safe, however; the objects of my devotion live in Indiana and I’ve never seen them in real life. One day into my Twitter feed came a tweet about a barred owl camera, I clicked on it, and that was the end for me. This year I was delighted to discover that the same owl parents were using the same nesting box. The three eggs have not yet hatched.

Last spring the nesting box was inhabited by a mother owl, her three owlets and the shadowy figure of the dad, who made occasional appearances with crayfish and worms in the dead of night. When I first met this family, two owlets had hatched and the third egg was still sitting there. When the mother owl left briefly to hunt, the tiny white owlets snuggled up to the sibling egg and slept. Then, on April 10, very early in the morning, the smallest owlet was born.

In those early days, the mother owl stayed with her young almost all the time, leaving only briefly to hunt. I left the owl cam open on the computer, with the volume up, so that I could hear if anything were happening. As I went about the house, I could occasionally hear the “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all” hoot of the owl, in response to her mate. They would chat briefly, with the female puffing up her feathers every time she called, and then she would settle her wings carefully around her owlets and resume her rest. 

Barred owls are mainly nocturnal, so much of her hunting took place at night. Tiny owlets need frequent feeding, so she and her mate would stock the larder overnight and then she would feed them about every 3 hours all day with the rabbit, or frog, or fish that lay in a corner of the nesting box. She snoozed much of the time, but occasionally would have her gorgeous huge dark brown eyes open. She changed position from time to time, allowing me to admire the lovely fluffy white feathers that are usually hidden under the stiff striped feathers of her tail.C9ovjVXXoAMsR95.jpg

It turns out it’s actually pretty loud inside a nesting box 30 feet up a tree in Indianapolis. The day shift is busy outside, with the jays calling, the woodpeckers hammering and the male cardinals singing enthusiastically to their modest brown mates. I already hated loud landscaping equipment, and when I heard the sound of a two-stroke engine as it is experienced in a nesting box,  my rejection of such machines was confirmed. That this poor dedicated mother, trying to snatch a nap in between feeding sessions of her young, should be so disturbed!

I was much taken by the beauty of the birds: the striped softness of the mother, the white down and tiny winglets of the infant owls, and now their brown and white fluffiness. The facial disk so characteristic of many owls, in which the feathers are arranged circularly around the large eyes, were evident even when the owlets were tiny. It has been a pleasure to see the daily activity of animals so close up.

But it’s not just a question of beauty and biological observation for me. I realized as I watched this mother that I was experiencing profound fellow-feeling with her.  I was remembering my experience with my babies as a physical experience, as a creature. After she fed her tiny owlets and preened them carefully, she settled her wings around them to provide warmth and shelter, and closed her eyes. (Click on the link for an adorable video). I remembered sitting in the nursing chair, nursing my infant, both our eyes closed and peace all around and between us. We were warm and dry and fed, and nestling together was all there was to do.

I saw the owlets, usually huddled together when the mother is off hunting, hear her approach. They stretched their wings, often almost toppling over, shot out their necks and generally got terribly excited. I was reminded of walking up the stairs to get the baby out of bed, after a nap, and hearing a sudden rustling in the bed clothes and shaking of the crib against the wall as the child wriggled in joy at my impending arrival.

I saw the frenetic motions of the owls as they eat, and the stillness of their bodies as their mother preens their tiny feathers, and I remember one day when my youngest was one or two. She was profoundly upset, her body shaking and hot, and I opened my arms to her. She came into them, pressed her trembling body against mine, and was suddenly quiet and still. I thought, “Only I can do this. Only I can be her mum.”

I saw how busy this mother owl was. When the owlets are about three weeks old, they are much more active in the nest. They eat much more, and she and her mate spend a lot of time hunting, leaving the owlets alone. As they have done from the beginning, they snuggle up to each other to keep warm. The smallest owlet is often jammed between the elder two. As they sleep, they sway on their feet trying to keep their balance. Often they lose the battle, flop over and then right themselves. This swaying motion reminds me of nothing more than graduate students trying to stay awake during an afternoon seminar. The mother is so careful with them, and takes such good care. This reminds me of the incredible amount of energy it took for me to care for my human babies. Sometimes it was hard to put their needs above my own. The mother owl spent a long time feeding her young one rainy day with the feathers on her own head wet and bedraggled. Once they were settled, she preened herself.stretched out

I admire this barred owl mother so much. She shows me that I am an animal mother too, and that my focus on the children to the virtual exclusion of all else when they were very young is natural. It makes me feel better about my extreme discomfort at leaving my babies for longer than a few hours when they were very small, and my reluctance now to have them away from me now for much longer than the length of a school day. When they come home, although they are all so much older now, they each want a hug and a cuddle and some quiet time. We all like to be near each other.

It makes me feel better about my initially astonishing lack of desire to pick up my intellectually-based ambitious busy life after the children were born. The physical reality of motherhood is more profound than I had ever dreamed. Thank you, barred owls.

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#MeToo: Woman on a Bike

One evening last summer, I was cycling to a meeting in Hintonburg along the multi-user path (MUP) that runs just north of Albert St. I noticed another cyclist, a male, approaching on the path that comes south from the Ottawa River at Bayview. He joined the MUP I was on, and we cycled a little ways until we reached the intersection of Bayview and Scott. He pulled up beside me and said, “Hi. I was wondering when you were going to recognize me.” I laughed and we started chatting. It was a man I have known for more than 25 years, someone who is in fact part of my family. He was going to the same meeting, and we proceeded on our way together.

When he first spoke and I responded by laughing, in my head was the word NEVER, just like that, in large caps. I thought, “That’s weird,” and left that thought to the side for the moment. The next day I took it out to examine it and made a surprising discovery, quite aside from the fact that my internal monologue is rather insistent.  I realized that if I encounter another person, either in a car, or on a bicycle, or on foot, I do a quick scan. If I think that the other person is male, I don’t look directly at him. I keep track of where he is by using my peripheral vision, but I don’t ever look at his face or in his eyes. This is what enabled me not to recognize my own brother-in-law on the MUP last summer.

Once I was aware of this, I noticed myself doing it all the time. In the summer when I leave the house I am almost always on foot or on my bike. Every time I encountered a man-like shape, I averted my gaze. How could this be, that a modern  woman spent her time out in the world not looking directly at men? This did not feel like empowerment. This felt like me scuttling around feeling unsafe.

That’s exactly what it was. What’s more, I can identify the exact moment when this behaviour began. It was one summer when I was in university, so quite a long time ago, more than 25 years. I was working as a gardener at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club in Toronto. Every morning I biked down Sherbourne St, long before there were any bike lanes, to catch the club launch over to the yacht club on the Toronto Islands. One morning when I was between Dundas and Shuter, something went wrong with my bike. It was the chain, or a flat tire, and I got off to try to fix the problem. Out of the corner of my eye I could see someone approaching. I straightened and smiled, hoping they would be able to help. Instead, the man starting undoing his fly. I drew myself up to my full height of almost 5’4″ and said frostily, “I beg your pardon?”. (My sisters for some reason found this very funny when I told them). But it worked. He was abashed, stopped trying to expose himself, and went away after telling me I was asking for it and gesturing to my clothing. I thought, “I’ve heard that women are always blamed for what they are wearing no matter what they are wearing. But this is ridiculous. Buddy, I’m wearing a Laura Ashley pinafore dress.” (Forgive me for the pinafore. It was the early 90s.) I was wearing a dress to my landscaping job because women were not allowed to wear shorts on the launch and I did my landscaping work in shorts. Sometimes I wore a dress over my shorts, and sometimes I pulled on a skirt right before I got on the launch. I was the only woman on the horticulture team, and the only one who had to dress differently on the launch.

I wheeled my  bike over to the nearest phone booth, found my emergency quarter in my back pack and called home. One of my parents came to get me in the giant burgundy station wagon. I went home, called my boss to tell him what had happened and that I wouldn’t be in that day, and spent a quiet day. I fixed my bike. The next day, I biked back down Sherbourne St. and back to work.

That was a bad summer. Then, like now, I biked almost everywhere. Frequently, when I was out on my bike, men called to me, commenting on my hair, my body. Each time I prayed that my bike would not let me down. It did not. It was that summer that I learned to avoid looking at men, as if doing so would prevent them fixing their gaze upon me. It didn’t, of course, but I suppose it subconsciously gave me enough of a sense of control that I could countenance going out into the world. I just adapted, did not even notice my adaptation, and kept on biking.

Fast forward fifteen or so years. I am married, a mother, and taking an evening course at the University of Ottawa. I’m not a young woman any more. I’m a grownup. I bike there, using the Cummings Bridge because the Adàwe Crossing for pedestrians and cyclists has not yet  been built. I have to turn left onto the bridge from North River Road. It’s early evening in the fall, already dark and traffic is very light. I have my lights on my bike. I take the lane. A blue pickup truck turns onto North River from Selkirk St., revs the engine very loudly, close passes me on my bike, screeches to a halt at the intersection. The driver leaps out of the cab, and approaches me, shaking his first and shouting the most foul obscenities. His body is a lot bigger than mine, his vehicle is a lot bigger than mine and he is using both of them to threaten me. Just as the driver got close to me, the light changed and he got back in his truck and took off, speeding up the bridge. I had memorized his license plate, so when I arrived at the university I called the police and made a report.

A few days later, a male police officer called to tell me that he had given the guy a call and given him a warning. He also told me that in a situation like that I can’t ignore the laws of physics. I was legally allowed as a vehicle to make the left turn, but the truck, being so much larger, would always win in a dispute. I thought, but did not say, “I bet you say that to all the gals. Would you say the same thing to a 120 lb woman who had just gotten beaten up by her 200 lb husband? She is also very much on the wrong side of the laws of physics.” But I didn’t say anything. I just thanked him and hung up.

That incident reinforced my feeling of being unsafe and I stopped cycling by myself after dark except on very rare occasions. Of course I’ve had many other encounters when I was spoken to or touched in a way that I did not like and that made me feel unsafe, both inside and outside. Thinking about these experiences made me realize that all who live in a city live in a different city from each other. My city is full of men who might be creeps and vehicles that might run me over. Others live in a city mediated by their own experience of racism, or barriers to the handicapped, or bias against the LGBTQ community, or of being a child. Councillor Diane Deans is perfectly right to call out the city of Ottawa for its lack of gender parity at the highest levels of decision making. The lack of voices other than those of middle-aged white men in cars makes Ottawa a city that responds well to their needs and poorly to the needs of the vulnerable (not white, not straight, not male, not able-bodied, not in a car, not an adult…).

A message urging pedestrians and cyclists to make eye contact with drivers at intersections to make sure that said driver isn’t about to run over you doesn’t work for me. If I’ve identified the driver out of my peripheral vision as male, I’m not looking anywhere near his eyes. If I’m not at adult eye level, could I even see the eyes of the driver? Did the person who dreamed up this strategy not think about the perspective of a woman, or a child, or someone in a wheelchair? What I want when I’m on my bike or on foot is to be nowhere near cars at intersections but on dedicated infrastructure for my mode of choice. I don’t want to be making eye contact with someone who may or may not be a creep.

A campaign urging pedestrians and cyclist to “Be Safe, Be Seen” at night doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t matter how many lights I hang on my coat or put on my bicycle. Being seen outside at night is not the same as being safe. It is the opposite of being safe. Why is there no acknowledgement that the night is not the same place for a white able-bodied cisgender man as it is for the entire rest of the population? What I want when I’m out at night is to feel safe from the depredations of cars, but also safe from verbal assault and threatening by men. “Be Safe, Be Seen” doesn’t even come close.

Each time I urge myself to get out there at night on my own, I remember how I felt each time I was threatened or harassed: humiliated and terrified. Cities need to be designed for the most vulnerable so that they are welcoming to all, day or night.

 

Zero Waste: Toilet Paper

Zero Waste: Toilet Paper

Of course these two things are a contradiction in terms. Toilet paper is perhaps the ultimate in waste: a single-use item that gets flushed down the toilet. Talk about mindless usage. Recently I’ve been rather fixating on how to improve our consumption of toilet paper. Costco stopped selling Cascades recycled toilet paper and so I decided to stop buying vast quantities of TP from there. Instead I bought PC Green from the Emporium of Bread Swindling. This assuaged my conscience about using virgin wood pulp (hello, songbird habitat!) to wipe our bums.

In an ideal world, one would use not have to dispose of a manufactured product every time one relieved oneself. I have been informed by a reliable source that any suggestion of reusable wiping technology would immediately void my marriage vows. I’m rather attached to my marriage vows, so I’ll avoid that solution. We have to buy something for this purpose, and I thought PC Green might do the trick. But not quite.

20180209_133506The spouse is the designated toilet paper fairy in the house. We have one nice main bathroom and one horrible basement bathroom that is strictly used as a last resort. He is responsible for keeping the TP stocked in the bathrooms. Our stash lives in the basement pantry and he keeps an eye on supply in the loos and refills as necessary. When we redid our bathroom, he built in a little shelf for it so that if the roll ran out, you could actually reach it from a seated position, as it were. If the nook is full, we can have 4 rolls in the bathroom at the same time. It turns out that the change from acquiring 48 rolls at a time to 12 rolls at a time undermines the toilet paper fairy’s sense of security. All of a sudden I was fielding a lot of questions about whether I was planning to buy toilet paper that week. Are you mad, spouse? We still have five rolls.

The problem is that PC Green does not come in massive packages, so if I want to buy 48 rolls at a time (no problem with the cargo bike, or if I take some children as donkeys with me on a pedestrian shopping trip) I end up buying a lot of plastic packaging instead. Thinking about the plastic made me consider whether I could find a solution that involved no plastic at all.

Now, if everyone would just use moss or leaves in a composting toilet, then I could have everything, but we’re not there yet as a household. The teenager is already accusing me of conspiring to get rid of our running water. No chance. I’m very fond of the bathtub and the washing machine.

I believe I have found a solution that fulfils all the criteria:

1. No using songbird habitat for “personal care”.
2. No limping by on stingy little packages of twelve rolls each.
3. No reusable, washable cloths.
4. No plastic packaging.

Sadly the solution involves the retailing behemoth that purveys many goods online, but I can’t have everything and that’s not on my list of criteria. It’s rather alarming to blow almost $100 on TP at once, but it’s not going to go off, is it?

Lo! A box containing 80 rolls of toilet paper, wrapped in paper, delivered to my house. The toilet paper fairy can have the security of abundance and I can stop thinking about sourcing toilet paper every ten minutes. There is one slight drawback: the texture of this paper is slightly “Memories of the Public Library”. Sigh.