Atlanta artist, Holly Rae Henson, considers the sacredness of wildlife and nature as central themes for her current work. Finding continued strength and inspiration from contemplating the complex beauty of the natural world, last year, Holly became drawn into the mysterious drama of a juvenile barred owl in need of sanctuary. She relayed the story (and her photos) to Style Blueprint:
My oldest daughter was the first to notice the adult owl, a rare sight within the city of Atlanta. Early autumn, the days still long, she opened the door to ask for one of those things kids ask for only after you’ve already said all of your goodnights three or four times. “Mama, Look!” Her last waking moments that day had collided with the owl’s first. We watched it take flight together. This happened three more times in the course of two weeks … my daughter, stepping outside into the garden, amazingly just in time to see the owl taking flight. I discovered this to be an adult barred owl roosting in the oak tree just across the street. A few nights, it flew very low, directly over me, in sacred silence. In time, the owl’s routine changed and our sightings drew to a close. We returned to our normal routines too, never expecting that we would touch an owl baby’s place in the web of the universe.
Spring came. Baby bird time. Baby owl time. One morning, as the kids and I were gardening, my neighbor called out to us from across the street, “Would you like see an owl?” Indeed, a juvenile barred owl was there in her yard, right at the base of the same oak tree. Her dogs had actually made the discovery and heralded the news loudly. As for me, I could only feel that we were staring right into the eyes of a miracle. The young owl couldn’t yet fly. Having never been on the ground, he gave it his best Little Engine try, and with great effort, climbed that oak until he reached the lowest branch. This stunning creature made his way down the branch into a cluster of foliage and was forced to put up with the neighborhood mockingbird gang, who bullied him until they finally grew weary of the sport. My neighbor and I took turns making calls to the Wildlife Department at the Chattahoochee Nature Center (CNC). CNC Wildlife Director, Kathryn Dudeck, explained what is normal for fledging barred owls and how to know if something had gone wrong. If all was well, we should expect the parents to be nearby, observing; and if he stayed out on that branch, they should be bringing him food at nightfall.
We waited. As did he. Dusk came. Then nightfall. No parents in sight. At sunrise, he was still in the same place, possibly hungry. Throughout the day, my children and I checked in on this ball of feathers with giant eyes, and finally at dusk, he made his move. I stood there, breathless, marveling as he ascended branch by branch, winged hop by winged hop, until his body became obscured by a thick canopy of magnolia leaves and the dimness of twilight. He left me there, suspended in one of those sublime, thin spaces between heaven and earth. The next evening, I wandered out to the giant magnolia looking up for him, and saw nothing. Until I looked down. There he was, lying at the base of the tree, body prone, yet his head was twisted towards the sky. He must have seen me long before I saw him and our eyes locked in desperate silence. Like a child who speaks to animals, assuming they understand, I told him he was going to be all right, and that I’d be back. Then I ran for my husband, Frank, also a wildlife lover and the kind of person who would consider it perfectly normal to talk to an owl.
Frank snapped into emergency mode and together, with the kids, we went back for the owl baby, armed with a beach towel and a laundry basket. The weak little guy willingly obliged as Frank cloaked him and lowered him gently into the basket, exactly as Kathryn Dudeck had instructed us to do if we found him on the ground again. All proceeded smoothly, except for one moment in the car when Frank pulled back a corner of the towel “to make sure he had enough air.” Before I knew it, a giant wing had flopped out, followed by an owl head peeking over the side of basket. A tense, yet comical episode of adults yelling at each other, kids being removed from the car, and owl repositioning ensued. From there, I held his basket in my lap. By this point, our Juvie Owl had a loyal following on Facebook, a social-media cheering squad of sorts, and had been christened “The Who.”
Ultimately, we arrived at the Cobb Emergency Vet Clinic with a basket full of owl and all parties free from any talon puncture wounds. Initial examination confirmed he was starving, and his transfer to Chattahoochee Nature Center was arranged for the next day. The Who remained for five weeks under the tireless care of Kathryn Dudeck and her devoted staff. Some days, Kathryn worked on only a few hours of sleep, caring for twelve injured raptors, yet still managing to take my worried calls. The news bleak, his head hanging almost 180 degrees upside down as he lost the ability to hold it up. Raptor specialists explored possible issues. Nutritional deficiency? Rat poisoning? Birth Defect? No. His condition remained a mystery, with The Who surviving only by force-feeding with a specialist supporting his head so that he could swallow food. I began to resign myself that his fate might not be to fly but return to the soul of the earth.
After weeks of exhausting treatment options, Kathryn told me there was one more possibility… Heavy metal poisoning. It was a long-shot. Not as common as rat-poisoning, Kathryn explained raptors sometimes eat a rodent that has been shot with a BB gun, or somehow ingest remnants of old lead fishing weights. It happens. Miraculously, he responded to the treatment for metal poisoning — gradually lifting his own head again, and learning to hunt and fly at the CNC. As we held our collective breaths, The Who began to turn towards a future of promise. Finally, on a sunny afternoon in July, Kathryn returned him right to our garden, where this journey started, all of us watching as he flew straight for our magnolia tree.
An artist under stress works through that anxiety in their preferred medium. In those tenuous weeks spent fretting over the fate of her mystical muse, Holly began to sketch, but failed to capture his true spirit as she thought of him struggling, frail and frightened. The glory came upon his release, when she could see him and, then, begin to paint him–strong, healthy, ready to take flight–larger than life on a 45″ x 35″ panel. Longing to give back to the organization that had rescued him, Holly turned her majestic painting of “The Who” into prints, with proceeds from benefitting the Chattahoochee Nature Center. The phenomenal 20″ x 16″ image transcends the paper with ruffled feathers, a curiously welcoming head tilt, and that piercing gaze beckoning to us to take heed.
“The universe is a continuous web. Touch it at any point and the whole web quivers.” — Stanley Kunitz, United States 2000 Poet Laureate
Holly, thank you for sharing this beautiful story! For more information about the owl prints, visit Holly’s website: hollyhenson.bigcartel.com.