The Secret Life of the Owl by John Lewis-Stempel

Review published on November 11, 2017.

Birds of prey have always fascinated me; they are the pinnacle of evolution as predators and have honed their techniques to maximise their efficiency. A glimpse of one is always special, whether it is a pair of buzzards wheeling on the thermals, a kestrel hovering over a motorway verge or the stoop of the feathered exocet that is the peregrine. I have only ever seen one owl in the wild though; just after dusk this shadow dropped off a tree from the woods near my back garden and glided close over my head. It was an unnerving experience.

Nocturnal creatures have always had an element of enchantment about them with their ability to move in almost total darkness. Those that fly, like bats and owls, can seem almost magical. Their special qualities have captivated mankind for millennia, and there are traces of owls in cultures going back as far as the Stone Age. Their rounded faces with the penetrating gaze have made us consider them as wise creatures but their night activities meant that some thought they were bearers of omens and messages from the other side. The legends that they have inspired are only equalled by their actual abilities; some species can rotate their head almost all the way round, some can hover, others can fly completely silently,

“I see him. Just a leaf blown through the pillars of the autumn oaks.”

John Lewis-Stempel is one of our current crop of writers who have taken the mantle of nature writing from luminaries of the genre such as J.A. Baker and Roger Deakin and made it their own. Lewis-Stempel has drawn on the prose and poetry from a variety of sources to shine a light on the elusive owl as well as drawing on personal experience of the owls that inhabit his land in Herefordshire. I could read John Lewis-Stempel’s prose all day and this is almost perfect with just one tiny flaw; it is too short! This is a lovely addition to my natural history library.

Paul Cheney 4/4

The Secret Life of the Owl by John Lewis-Stempel
Doubleday 9780857524560 hbk Oct 2017

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SECOND OPINION: The Nature of Autumn by Jim Crumley

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Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us by David A. Neiwert

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