It was bitterly cold, but three of us decided we should leave the fire and go for a walk. Frost and ice bring such stillness. The very air was frozen. As we turned back, an intensity of suspended watchfulness compelled me to look back and up. Motionless it sat, the small hunched owl, penetrating the sharp cold with its inclusive stare. It waited a few moments, then lifted off and glided away.
The feeling of being watched has always been with me, bringing with it the urge to look in return. As I watched the child watching an ant awhile ago I was back again in a patch of long grass. Not much larger than she, I was fascinated by the countless very small creatures that bustled through the stalky jungle. Fascinated, but not amazed or repelled. Their right to be there was unquestioned , as was their shape, form and behaviour. There must have been some wise adults around who let this awareness alone to grow in its own way.
It starts, this looking at other life, with the little world. The movement in the corner of the bedroom that sidles its way across the ceilng, the buzz and tickle landing on a hand, a minute business round the doorstep, a scurry and flutter in the garden, the twisting in soil. But we have to be reminded. There was the baby we knew whose parents regularly took him to the zoo, placing him in front of the spectacular animals. They were disappointed at his lack of response. Then one day he pointed with great animation to the lion's cage - at a sparrow.
I was particularly fond of worms, and this appreciation has not been eroded by squeamish adult foibles. I noted with satisfaction my daughter's developing interest in them, and in snails. I was surprised when a little friend came and cringed at the sight of two pet snails we borrowed from the wall for the summer. You expect that from grown-ups who develop odd dislikes, but the child's disgust could only be the result of imposed reactions. We set about undoing the damage and soon she was handling the snails quite happily. This made me look more closely at what does colour our growing awareness of animals (apart from unthinking comments of an older generation), and this brings me back to the owl.
I like owls. My earliest knowledge of their existence was a picture in the nursery of a big owl and little owl perched on a branch with a verse about being wise underneath. Awhile ago we caught another owl watching us in the Ashdown Forest, which was nice because that was the setting for the Hundred Acre Wood. Christopher Robin's Owl introduces some endearing frailties to the owl nature which make all that inscrutable wisdom more acceptable. Childhood stories and pictures do have an influence on our feelings about certain animals, I'm sure. Whether adults approve of giving them human characteristics is another matter. They are an established and loved part of children's literature. I wonder if toads would be so acceptable if it hadn't been for Kenneth Grahame. Frogs after all have the great advantage of being possible princes under a spell. It's a pity the stoats and weasels came off badly, because they are beautiful and graceful creatures. I was once enchanted by a family of young weasels that were so intent on their games that they came tumbling across the path in front of me. I watched for several minutes as they fell against my feet, delighted by their prettiness, the fluffy mixture of light chestnut and cream. Eventually they rolled back to the safety of the undergrowth, still unaware of my presence, I think.
I have friends who would benefit from a sympathethic tale featuring spiders. Something they could build a relationship upon. After all, we come into close contact with more spiders than owls or toads. Then there are snakes. I once wrote a children's fantasy in which several of the main characters were snakes. I wasn't trying to promote them, nor had I at that time thought about the influence of animal stories. Snakes just suited my mood. Unfortunately the various publishers I tried to interest didn't accept the challenge. As far as I know, this area is still wide open. But generally speaking I feel it is essential that the story writer should be free of all prejudice. If there is a villain, let him be human - that's a small concession for taking such large liberties.