As the last light was disappearing from the October evening sky, the motorway south towards Dublin was filled with city bound traffic; perhaps returning weekenders, perhaps weekly commuters contemplating the work of the week ahead.
Motorways are said to be wildlife refuges; the complete absence of people on foot who might disturb habitats allowing the survival of fauna, provided it has the intelligence to avoid the traffic, the wheels of which would spell certain death. A refuge for wildlife provides a hunting ground for predators and a barn owl was gliding above the embankment at the side of the carriageway, presumably waiting to swoop upon some unsuspecting mouse.
In childhood years, catching sight of such an owl would have induced an immediate and deep sense of fear and anxiety. Owls were said to be the call of the dead; to see a owl was a warning that someone was going to die. Of course, it was superstitious nonsense; not to see an owl occasionally on autumn evenings in rural England would have been a greater cause for comment, a sign of the loss of habitat for the owls or their prey. Nevertheless, sightings of the white underside of a barn owl was something to be avoided.
If it wasn’t owls that were there to cause frights at night, it was ghost stories. The ghost stories were more troubling than the owls; the owls were simply the call of the dead, the ghosts were the dead themselves. It was only in adult life that the realization came that ghosts are only seen by people prepared to see them. Happy to go to any churchyard, or any other allegedly haunted place, at any time, I have never seen so much as a hint of white sheet.
The fear induced by silly stories told to credulous children meant a failure to appreciate the wonder and beauty of the nocturnal world.
The nonsense of those stories heard in those childhood years did prompt a determination never to subject our own children to superstitious tales.
In August 1996, leaving a house in the Dordogne at 3.30 am at the beginning of the long drive to the Breton port of Roscoff, we urged our children to sleep. Our daughter, a determined character even at the age of three, ignored the suggestion, ‘I want to see owls’.
‘No, go to sleep. You won’t see any owls’.
As we drove through the warmth of the August night, I was to be proved wrong – at least eight times. Our daughter pointed out each of the birds caught in the headlights of our Peugeot. The owls for her were birds of interest and intrigue. Had she been on the M1 motorway last evening, she would have commented upon the beauty of the barn owl, and she would have had no thoughts of the dead, or of ghosts.