Ah, trick question! Of course you wouldn’t bury an owl, because the Migratory Bird Act makes it illegal in the United States to be in possession of even an owl feather, let alone the entire dead bird. (Or three.) So of course this post is entirely a work of fiction. (Cough, cough.)
Last summer I was sent by an Idaho Travel magazine to an old mining town in Idaho’s Owyhee mountains (“Silver City, Idaho: A ‘Ghost Town’ that Never Gave Up the Ghost“). The Owyhees were named for a trio of native Hawai’ian trappers, working for the Hudson Bay Company, who disappeared in these mountains around 1820. For my husband Keoni, a native Hawai’ian himself, this bit of history put an intriguing spin on our trip.
Islanders use two words for giving directions: makai (toward the ocean) and mauka (toward the mountain), since pretty much anything on an island can be described within that frame of reference. When I asked him if that’s why his “uncles” might have lost their way, he replied in Pidgin, “Bruddahs wen’ mauka, wen’ mauka… Stay los’!” Joking that our trip might double as a search-and-rescue, we armed ourselves with an offeratory can of Spam, which these days is a favorite food in Hawai’i (you can order Spam & eggs at McDonald’s there).
He had another mission as well: looking for rounded rocks of pahoehoe lava (what we “here in America” would call vesicular basalt), which he plans use to line an imu, the traditional pit for roasting a whole pig. Our overnight bag and camera bag rode in the back seat, the car-trunk kept free for his boulder collection.
On his native turf, however, he would never remove volcanic rock without making a return offering to the volcano goddess Pele–traditionally a cairn of rocks with fresh fruit or flowers or a bottle of liquor. It’s a custom he takes seriously, although with his own touch of humor–there have probably been some hikers in the Owyhees who are still puzzled about the Spam-can-topped cairn they ran across…
It’s not the only cultural custom he still practices, some of them adjusted with a modern twist. He was taught not to sweep after dark (because it brings bad spirits into the house)–so he only vacuums during daylight hours. If something gets spilled or broken at night, it stays put until morning when he’s willing to get out the vacuum. Same thing with whistling in the house–not after dark. He doesn’t shake hands when he greets someone he knows, or even meets someone new–he embraces them, with an intake of breath as the “exchange of breath” that’s part of the cultural greeting. The word aloha literally means “exchange of breath.”
Another interesting linguistic side-note… The Hawai’ian word haole is used now to refer to white people, but it literally means “without breath.” (And no, it’s not a compliment.) When the Islanders attempted to welcome newly arrived missionaries with their traditional greeting–the embrace and exchange of breath–the prudish new arrivals recoiled from the nearly-naked natives and refused to hug… So the Hawai’ians assumed they had no breath to exchange.
Another cultural element about which he feels strongly is the ‘aumakua, or guardian spirit in animal form. His family’s ‘aumakua is Mano, the shark, and several of his tattoos include Mano as a symbol of protection. The King of Hearts card (often called the “suicide king” because of the dagger he’s holding to his head) is eclipsed by a fiercely protective white shark–his guardian against any return to that dark place where suicide seemed the only out. A traditional Maori tribal representation of a hammerhead is swimming up the side of his neck, a design gifted to him from a Tongan family who used to eat regularly at our Hawai’ian restaurant. He added this one after talking with his grandfather in a dream–Tutu Pa suggested he put Mano on his neck rather than put a rope around it ever again.
I wrote in an earlier post about Owls crossing my path until I recognized them as my own ‘aumakua (or totem, or whatever Irish word would better fit my own heritage–owls are totems in Celtic culture too). Interestingly enough, my sister responded to that post by emailing that she’s been developing an affinity for owls over the last year as well. I don’t believe in coincidence.
On this particular road-trip, as we were returning from the Owyhees with a trunk full of volcanic rocks, we passed a large white owl, dead in the middle of the road. It didn’t look as though it had been hit or run over–just dead on the center line.
As we drove for another moment in silence, I was just feeling all kinds of wrong about leaving that owl dead in the road. Like dragging an American flag on the ground or stepping on a consecrated communion wafer, rolled into one. Keoni was watching me, and without a word, he swung the car around in a U-turn and headed back. Without a word, I grinned at him in relief.
I thought he would pull over so I could run out for it, but instead he slowed in the empty highway, opened the driver-side door, and lofted the owl onto my sandaled feet. Its feathers were warm from the sun. When we got to a pull-out, we carefully tucked it among the pahoehoe rocks in the trunk and nosed the car back in the direction of home. Not five minutes later, we passed another untouched dead owl, this time on the side of the road. And within another five minutes, another owl.
So we arrived home with not one, but three white owls in our trunk. Arranging an appropriate owl-burial took priority over the other unpacking, so Keoni dug a hole in our garden and we solemnly interred our owls. With an offeratory Spam sandwich (extra mayo) and a cup of soda (liquor would be more traditional–but we’re both recovering alcoholics) and some quiet words of respect.
I see public buildings with plastic owls on top to “guard” against pigeons. Well, the guardians of our home are the three white owls in our garden. Or perhaps now it’s a guarden.
22 thoughts on “How to Bury an Owl”
What are the Celtic and/or Hawai’ian views of the skunk as totem/‘aumakua?
Neither island HAS skunks–so they don’t play a role in cultural traditions of either. :)
But I’m betting they have a solid place in Native American traditions, where skunks are endemic… Would make some interesting research!
Keoni just forwarded this article to me… It’s at least a beginning on the skunk-quest :)
Since Skunk is my spirit guide as well, I appreciated this article. Share breath with Keoni for me.
The owls shown in your pictures are called Barn Owls in the UK. They are beautiful to watch. I’ve been lucky enough to see 2 in flight. Just amazing
Barn Owls here in the U.S. as well. I hadn’t encountered many at all (had HEARD them regularly, but seldom SEEN them)–until last summer, when they started appearing ALL the time, wherever I traveled… :)
An interesting post where I learned a few things I didn’t know. And I’m sure your three owl will take care of your home. And of you.
Who would have ever thought you would come across three of them? Amazing!
Or… they came across US… ;)
So much I didn’t’ know. Thanks for the education!
I have learn many things that are really good !
it support in bury
Such a beautiful post! I especially love Tutu Pa’s idea about the hammerhead. Your family is tapped into some very magical, powerful stuff!
Glad you picked up those owls. You were sent that way for a reason. Not leaving them there was a sign of respect – a recognition that life isn’t to be pitched aside like garbage. Thank you for that consideration
what a beautiful gesture…
i cannot leave one of any Gaia’s creatures to be disrespected..
Thank you for this indness…
a wonderful spirit you have …
Such a wonderful post. Respecting all things is the honorable thing. The owls were honored because you came their way.
Three! Perhaps there’s also meaning in the number……
The thought HAS occurred to me! I just don’t know WHAT it means–but the whole afternoon seems to significant to ignore… Maybe someone with a numbers-background can tell me something about the significance… :)
The cultural Geographer in me ate this post up with a big, heaping spoonfuls! Thank you for sharing! …all of it!
I am perched on that limb with those three white spirit owls right now, after becoming totally absorbed in a huge hug while reading wonderful post! You shared cultural information here while inspiring us, not boring us! No wonder the Idaho travel magazine sent you on that trip!
A wonderful story (fictional, of course), and I especially enjoyed the Hawaii references, since I lived in Honolulu for five years before moving back to California. Love the islands!
Whenever I pass a dead animal on the road I always feel so guilty for just driving by, and very sad and so disrespectful for it is a life afterall. Any idea what might have killed the three owls? That seemed so strange. Oh, and I noticed, your husband vacuums. Yay for him! As well as a number of others things I learned… thanks.