Book Review: The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar
The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Living with a Tawny Owl
By Martin Windrow
Illustrations by Christa Hook
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014
Military historian Martin Windrow’s new book The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Living with a Tawny Owl is a heartfelt, frequently funny, and ultimately quite touching memoir of the fifteen years during which Windrow shared his life – first in a London apartment and then in a house in the country – with a female Tawny Owl named Mumble.
As Windrow flatly states, the book is a love story (“I am not interested in analyzing it any further, I am just delighted to remember how very good it felt”), and despite its peculiar nature, the book isn’t as sui generis as it might seem at first blush. It joins, for instance, Stacey O’Brien’s Wesley the Owl and Claire Rome’s An Owl Came to Stay in the odd sub-genre of book about people who adopted owls and lived with them. In its wealth of anecdotes, Windrow’s book stands as one of the best of the bunch, and in terms of sheer rhetorical power, The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar is in a class only with William Service’s slim, intensely good book Owl.
The general outline is fairly similar: human adopts owl and is first startled, then bemused, then emotionally revived by the adopted owl’s various antics. Many smaller species of owls adapt quite readily to looser forms of semi-domesticated captivity (perhaps the greatest owl-human book of them all, Bernd Heinrich’s One Man’s Owl, deals with a mostly-wild Great Horned Owl who’s never more than very distantly any man’s owl), and Mumble is no exception. She stalks around Windrow’s furniture, perches on his doors, and shreds his potted plants exactly as if wild owls had been doing those things for millennia. The main joy in this kind of book comes from the patient, lovingly detailed observations the host humans end up making of their strange visitors (and if Egyptian tomb-paintings are any indication, perhaps they have). On page after page of Windrow’s book, he – and by easy extension we – get completely caught up in simple onlooking:
I never tired of watching her floor-walking, largely because she found it so interesting herself. Before she jumped down there from a perch she considered the drop zone carefully, head on one side, as if making calculations before she committed herself to a plan. Once down, she would stroll across to sit at the foot of the window-wall in her “cottage loaf” pose – bum planted squarely on the carpet, legs retracted so that only the tips of her talons showed under her skirts – and gaze around alertly with wide eyes. Often she seemed to spot some invisible real or imaginary prey a few in inches in front of her toes – which was odd, because I knew that her short-range vision was bad. Nevertheless, she would stare fixedly at one spot on the carpet, before jumping up to full leg stretch, pouncing with murderous violence, and “killing” it. She might repeat this game for a full minute at a time.
Of course, there are plenty of far more active incidents (one of these, when Mumble temporarily escapes Windrow’s apartment and he goes on an increasingly frantic search for her, is the most memorable passage in the book), and Windrow narrates his choice of them with an absolutely uplifting baroque verve:
Mumble continued to take an intelligent interest in the written word, and when I was sitting reading with a newspaper in my lap she might suddenly arrive out of nowhere, landing in the middle of it with a crash and happily kicking holes in it. When I was lying on the sofa she would sometimes land unexpectedly on my chest and walk up to my face, to investigate my beard. One summer evening I was stretched at my ease with a book propped on my chest; Mumble was off about her own concerns somewhere, and I was completely absorbed in my reading. Suddenly, and absolutely without warning, she landed heavily in the narrow space between book and face. My protest left my brain as “Good grief, Mumble!” but reached my ears as “F’noogf’neef, Unguh!” since her fluffy front was pressing hard against my nose and mouth. She apparently construed the resultant burst of warm air up her petticoats as a physical liberty, because she bent forwards and carefully bit me on the bridge of my nose.
Readers fascinated with owls will love Windrow’s digressions on their physiology and natural history, and anybody who’s ever found themselves sharing a home with an odd animal of any kind will nod in recognition at the many moments when two worlds don’t quite manage to connect, and when sighing concessions must be made to behaviors that either possess a bizarre, refracted logic or possess no logic at all.
Thanks to Windrow’s writing skill, we’re able to believe the slow, grudging erosion of the author’s stiff-upper-lip stoicism. And thanks to that same writing skill, Mumble herself comes alive as one of the season’s most unforgettable characters. The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar deserves to become a classic of its kind.