What an Owl Knows – Rev. Caitlin Cotter Coillberg

Winnie the pooh says that “if anyone knows anything about anything, its OWL who knows something about something.”  

Owls, Jennifer Ackerman writes in her recent book “What an owl knows” have truths to tell us, from afar—from their perches and nest deep in old-growth forests, deserts, the Arctic—and from up close, in the hands of vets, rehabbers, researchers, and educators.  We would be wise to listen, she says.

I love that the Sexuality Education program written and led by Unitarian Universalists and our congregationalist kin in the United Church of Christ is called Our Whole Lives- OWL for short- both because it’s such a beautiful title for a program designed for lifelong learning and highlights that our sexuality is a piece of ourselves that we hold as holy, and because the program being called OWL gives me an excuse to talk about owls. 

For example, here’s a fun thing I learned from the book about owls that was recommended to me when I did the OWL training for seventh through 12th graders earlier this year:

There’s a thing that a lot of raptor trainers and rehabilitators have told me repeatedly- that owls are relatively dumb birds. 

That it is ironic that owls are a symbol of wisdom because they are stupid.  

Apparently, this is completely wrong.  

More current research shows that owls brains are incredibly beautifully complex and it’s just that they think and react very differently from other birds.  

It’s like all those arbitrary tests for humans that told us people weren’t capable or intelligent when it was just that their brains are different, that they think and act differently from neuroprivileged folks. 

And apparently OWLs are hard to train because they are very sensitive and shut down when they experience sensory overwhelm. 

So you know, as an autistic person, I’m just extra excited about owls now.  

And I love the stories of people who work with and study owls that are in this book- for example the Dutch musician trained in Baroque music whose heart condition ended her music career, but who turned out to have an incredible ear for analyzing owl calls, and now spends many of her nights as a world renowned owl researcher, rolling around a former quarry turned nature preserve in her mobility devise, recording owl calls for her new and very appreciative ecology colleagues.  

She said, “[I] realized I was still a musician. All the skills that I learned, all the talent I have, I can still use, just in a different way”.  

Or there’s the Emergency room doctor, who was suffering compassion fatigue and found the volunteer work she took up at night catching OWLS  to be restorative and life giving. 

 She  brought the concept of the pause to the controlled chaos of the ED- a moment of silence after every death of a patience- a time out, time of silence for everyone to process. 

No wonder she loves owls, those silent masters of stillness and quiet. 

Some times when things are hard at work she will turn to her friend and say “you know, I could really use an owl right now.”

Another similar story Ackerman tells is of a retired heart surgeon, who discovered that his skilled hands were exactly what were needed to band Long-eared Owls in Montana, that doing this work was exactly the break from the operating room he needed. 

He does owl research in the field all the time now, and apparently knows more about Northern Pygmy Owl courtship that anyone else on our continent. 

Owls court each other by yelling at each other- or, well, calling out to each other, it only sounds like yelling in some species- and, but also by feeding each other, fluffing each other, and, if you are a short-eared Owl, by doing a gorgeous aerial dance. 

I can see why a retired heart surgeon would spend all his time studying owl courtship.

Courtship rituals are fascinating, in any species.

I mean, that’s why shows like Bridgeton are so popular, right? 

 It’s a show all about courtship and romance and the process of starting a family.

And it’s definitely a show about mothers , and parenting in general– a show I’ve been thinking about a lot leading up to this holiday.

This was an interesting thing to me about the TV show, as opposed to the Bridgerton books, is how MUCH they are about parenting and especially about mothers- that in many ways on the show the romantic leads are almost secondary to the drama of the parents- that that is the identity so much of the drama is built around- whether a character longs to be a parent, is acting as a parent for someone who doesn’t have one or is estranged from their parents,  has sworn not to be a parent, or is striving to help their children become parents. Whether someone feels they deserve to be a parent, and who they want to parent with. 

There’s a whole moment in the second season where one of the secondary characters- lady Featherington, refuses to run away with the man wooing her because, she says, what he doesn’t understand is that she Is A Mother, and will always care most about what happens to her daughters- she also talked about in the first season about how she survived an unhappy marriage by taking delight in her children.  She couldn’t love her husband, but she did love her daughters. 

I’m not super a fan of yet another media source giving us women who define themselves primarily as mothers- but it is a powerful moment- here’s this scheming, conniving, ambitious character and then you get this glimpse of her motivation and are like, well, that kinda makes sense though.  Not much parents won’t do for their kids.  

And a reminder that there is power in parenting, and in the identity of parent, and that that is something we can use for good, even as we see people use it to do harm. 

So it’s a show about parenting, but yes  also sex, it is a show with carefully choreographed sex scenes overseen by well trained intimacy coordinators.

I appreciate that they were very clear about consent and care with the actors on this show- since the whole first season centers around a lack of consent, care, and understanding.

It’s yet another piece of media that would be fixed by the characters having OWL class, you know?

The scene where the Bridgerton mom, Lady Violet, attempts to do the simplest version of sexuality education for her just married daughter and COMPLETELY FAILS is pretty painful to watch- you know, if you’ve seen it. 

She’s a loving, dedicated parent- but she sure doesn’t have anything like the Parents as Sexuality Educators Group our OWL parents here have, you know?  

I wish more parents had something like our Parents as Sexuality Educators small group- our OWL programming in general, right? 

It’s heartbreaking to me how many folks never get comprehensive sexuality education from a trusted and trustworthy source.  

I’m so grateful that this congregation has committed, again and again, to being a community that does the ministry of the Our Whole Lives program.

Because parents might be a child’s primary religious and sexuality educator, but they shouldn’t be alone in that.

Because sexuality and religious education are lifelong learning.

Because OWL doesn’t just prepare us to be healthier in our own lives, it prepares us to be better citizens and supportive friends and community members.  

Because teaching OWL is an amazing opportunity- it’s so cool for me to watch and hear how being an OWL facilitator is transformative for folks who do that, just like working with owls is for many of the folks in Ackerman’s book.  

Ackerman writes  that while “owls are not omnipresent for us in the way songbirds are, they’re present for us in some deeper way or place, where night lives inside us.”

And similarly, our OWL programming might not be always in front of us the way worship or our other Lifelong Learning programs are, but it’s a ministry that lies close to our hearts and has touched so many of our lives in vital ways.  

I am so grateful, for our OWL people, and to share in that ministry with all of you.