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A White Owl Was Carried Into My Life

By Claire Dunphy, Bali


I no sooner placed two owl statues  at the entrance to my jungle pathway than an owl was carried from that path into my life, - a white owl, literally carried! And in the hands of the Kelian Banjar, the village head. This occurred less than three weeks ago but feels like one very long day in which my life has been entirely devoted to protecting, learning about, nourishing, worrying about  and passionately loving this owl.


It all started just before Galungan and Kuningan, that period of ten days in Bali when Good triumphs over Evil, (for a change!).


I live in a bamboo house perched on the edge of a jungle ravine in a small village up in the mountains. On Galungan day it is customary here and throughout Bali for Balinese to pray in all the major temples of their village, usually five. I had dear friends visiting me this time and we decided to join the village at some of the temples to pray in the usual sweet way, with incense and flowers. It’s such a pleasure to walk through the fields and forest from one temple to another and the temples themselves are very old and beautiful. 


Afterward we had a late lunch followed by naps but our reverie was interrupted when  my neighbor, Ibu Made and a troop of small girls arrived in a state of excitement declaring  there was an egg as big as a head in a nest nearby. We must see this I declared and ran for my binoculars. We slid down the bank into the adjacent pasture then crossed another field to the edge of the jungle ravine.


What we saw below on the opposite side of the ravine was a very tall white bird with large black eyes and black eyebrows standing in an open nest. And the “egg” was a nestling.  “It’s an owl” we three declared. “But,” said Ibu Made, “Mangku junior” ( our young village priest) “climbed up and says the bird is an eagle.” “Well,” we said, “ from here, the nest looks a bit like an eagle nest.” At any rate I said, a big white bird in the green jungle is most unusual and since it is Galungan I think we need to leave an offering .  I could see the relief on Ibu Made’s face. Unusual things are a bit threatening and “banten” or offerings seem to calm anxieties. My friends and I returned to the house and consulted bird books but were baffled.


The following day was Manis Galungan when our village temples are visited by the Barongs of other villages along with their banten, warriors and gongs. As guardians of the forest, Barongs need to reconnect with the forest environment now and then.  Some of the visiting Barongs were made of wood from the same forest and so they are believed to be related.  For them it’s like a family reunion, for us, a thrilling spectacle and the assurance that the spirit of the forest goes on. The arrival of a white owl seemed appropriate and we were relieved that it was still in place when we viewed the nest at the end of this day. People continued to doubt it was an owl, as owls in Bali are small and dark.


The night of Galungan I’d had a vision. I saw beautiful rippling wings and then suddenly a face emerged. It was  like a mask, half white and half black, a very powerful image. Then  arms were extended, not bird legs and the hands were turned down, motioning inward.  If the palms were up, that would mean this spirit needed a ceremony, down meant I was being summoned and/or blessed.  Naturally this made me more anxious about the bird’s fate though I didn’t understand just how the vision and the bird itself were connected, I knew they were.  Here, it is said, that the arrival of an owl means someone is pregnant…definitely not me!


Next day a group of Balinese women from a village where I used to live, arrived at my house for lunch and to pray at our oldest forest temple. Later we led them  to the ravine edge and all were fascinated by this  tall white bird. Three of the women were Mangku that is, priests, and they said we must indeed leave banten at the viewing place.


My friends had to leave that afternoon so they missed the commotion the following morning which made me fear for the life of the bird and its young. Ibu Made, I called, please go to the looking place with banten. There is a problem and I started sobbing. She ran back, said she saw the drunken man from the other side of the forest capturing the young bird.  Everyone was yelling at him.  I said call the pecalang, our village police and someone else ran to the home of the nearest priest.


I was trying to get a grip on my emotions and come to terms with the possibility that the owlet and parent bird were gone, that their mere appearance was perhaps gift enough! But very quickly a group of very wild looking men, all of whom I knew but scarcely recognized, bounded from my jungle path wielding guns and knives! The head of the village was in the lead and he was carrying the precious creature, a young white owl. They had raided the home of the thief!  I was shocked! I said, the bird must go back to the nest but they protested that it would only be stolen again and that I must  take care of it.  It was already  thought to have a spiritual connection with the central temple of the village and so had already entered the realm of the sacred in the minds of the villagers.  I learned that the head Mangku and a Balian, ( medicine man) from another village had “seen” something like what I had “seen.”   The village was buzzing, alive with news of magic.


The astonishing men of the rescue party found a laundry basket and one of the bamboo cages used for fighting cocks and put them together on a stool connected with an umbrella stand and added an electric bulb to keep our young one warm, then slit the throat of a young chicken and fed our owl on the spot – wow! All I did was cradle it and kiss it and cry shamelessly before the assemblage which was amazingly sympathetic as public tears are seldom seen in Bali. But after everyone left, it was all up to me. For a couple of nights I got up every four hours to feed it chicken from the end of a long bamboo spear. Chicken which I warmed in hot water and pounded so that it would be perhaps easier to digest.  Kadek Martin, the dance instructor for the boys at my Sunday program for village kids, is in a mega production called Bali Agung.  In the show he must carry a living hawk on his arm. 


I called him, “Kadek, do you know someone who understands birds like hawks and owls?”


“YES” he replied, my neighbor cares for those birds at the Bali Zoo. I’ll bring him on Sunday. His name is Balik.” 


Balik did come and he brought a specially prepared white mouse and promised to bring others. (He remembered me from years back because I had brought toys for a little lion who was orphaned.)


Meantime, my friend at the Bali Bird Park, Pak Suana, came to see the owl and was able to identify it as a Barred Eagle Owl.  The description of this bird in my Birds of Indonesia book fit, except that the mother was very white, not beige and her “eyebrow” feathers were black or dark brown  and very pronounced! The nest was indeed in a large bowl shaped  epiphytic fern in its dry brown phase as the book described.  The very white mother owl was too easy to see against this background. If she had been the color depicted in the book maybe no one would have noticed her. Pak Suana said that this bird is now quite rare because forest is disappearing. I decided then that I would call the owl a messenger from Ibu Pertiwi, (Mother Earth) asking  us to guard and plant forest.  Usually this owl is found in Java and Sumatra but came to Bali where there is still some forest.


On Kuningan, at least 100 people of all ages came to see the owl, now named, Wayan Puakan, or Yanpuak and finally,  Yanpu for short.  I talked to them all about the forest. Pak Mangku Gede gave a ceremony for it under the tree where it was born and Pak Nenjor, a psychic who speaks with the forest people called Tonyo, did a meditation in which he was told that I should be the ‘keeper” of the owl. Some other villagers consulted a balian in another town and got the same message and that the bird was “Burung Cak,” sacred. Because school was out, there was a continuous stream of children, giving me the opportunity to speak for the forest in greater detail than I usually have a chance to do.


After the ceremony I was told that Yanpu must receive banten and holy water daily and that his/her “cage” may be covered only with temple cloth, no towels! Because it is so cold here I have to add quilts but  only use my best ones.


Is it a boy or girl owl?  Pak Suana of the bird park believes it is a male because its eyes are so dark. The females, he said, have lighter eyes.  The Mangku from the nearby village of Paku Seba believes it to be female.I know he, like Pak Nenjor, has a special relationship with the Tonyo. Personally I don’t think about this very often. For me this owl is a “presence,” a bird embodying a spirit with a special mission. It has already, at the very least, perked up this village!


For the first week, I feared each morning that I would find it dead in its basket, but amazingly it has lived and even thrived. Though a week ago I sensed its life force energy diminishing and barely slept.  In the morning I knew Yanpu needed a piece of his birth nest. I must have expressed urgency  because the men in my staff bounded off to the tree and Pak Made, who can climb anything, scooted up and hacked off  chunk of the fern nest and we placed it in the cage. The cage is now one of those metal contraptions for large dogs and is large enough for  a perch and a spreading of magnificent wings.  It was heartbreaking to see the immediate connection Yanpu made.  He dug in the nest, pounced and snuggled deeply into it as though having missed it for a long time. His (her) appetite picked up. Pak  Balik filled the cage with dried banana leaves and twigs and now Yanpu plucks and pulls with what looks like fierce enjoyment.  Still, I am very vigilant. If a cold breeze comes up, I cover the cage.  I now usually feed our owlet by hand and stroke his beak and tickle him behind the his head. He closes his eyes in pleasure and often “eep-eeps” what I call “speaking in Squeaky Toy” so I imagine this is something that his mother might do. I haven’t heard her, that gallant mother, for a week.  I know her whoo- whoo call and have heard the successive grunts that is also her voice.  There are other owls here from time to time and I am imagining that the one with the very low “whoo” might be a male, maybe the father.  I try to send a picture message of the baby showing it strong and healthy and I hope something gets through.


What next?  For this village the enchanting white owlet is sacred. Its whiteness alone makes it a messenger of Spirit. Its arrival at the time of Galungan only confirms its sacredness.  It clacks its beak, making a sound like many of the Barongs as they enter the temple and moves its head in a weaving motion as do the Barongs.  In these ways it is woven into the tradition of the sacred here. The fact that two years ago a white calf was born on the same land greatly adds to its aura of sacredness. The Mangku of the village and several balians see it this way. When the chief Mangku came to see the owl for the first time and approached its basket, the bird collapsed into  a deep bow. The Mangku was pleased and acknowledged he was being honored with a wai.


To the Bird Park of Bali it is an endangered species and they would like to have it.  To Pak Turup, the thief, it is money. In fact he came to my house asking for money because he was the one who “got” the bird. 


I said, “Maybe you don’t understand Pak,  this bird is protected by the government of Indonesia and if they knew you had taken it from its nest you could be in jail.” He bowed and left.


I love to imagine Yanpu free and dream I could build a feeding station in front of my house that he could return to. I am not yet sure that he knows how to hunt for food without a mother to teach him. I have plenty of room to build a fine habitat for him but have a sinking feeling when I think of  the extravagantly and profoundly beautiful Yanpu confined, unable to experience the life he is entitled to, and would already have been engaged in, if not for human greed.


Two months later:

Yanpu came to my house on Saturday July 9, three days after Galungan and he left on Wednesday morning Sept 14. It was Kajan Klion, (special day for Earth spirits) two days after Purnama, (full moon) and two days before a good day for cremations and burials, many of which I saw on the road from Pemuteran to Puakan. It was thought to be an auspicious time to die.    I wasn’t there for the moment of his death.


I was forever anticipating it at first but as I watched him become more and more active and eating well I ordered a large cage for him 120x120x180, which filled the end of my  porch. The staff found a partial tree with several branches. I attached the piece of his birth nest to the center of it and added perches in the corners of the cage. This was an expensive undertaking but I decided  all evidence was that he would continue to be with us and in any case, he needed more room to practice being an owl.  We set aside a large piece of land for him as a later habitat but being so young, he couldn’t be left  alone among the trees which would have been his home later.


How he reveled in his expanded house, jumping from branch to branch with fierce concentration, sometimes pouncing on an insect wandering below and spreading his wings over it. His instincts seemed to be in tact and I began to think again about freeing  him. I gave him some small stuffy toys. The one he loved to “kill” was a green frog with white wings that had long wobbly arms and legs,(apologies to my brother whose gift to me it had been!)  Something about this creature really turned on his predatory nature.  He held it with a foot and went through the motions of pulling it apart with his beak. There was also a pink bear with the same kind of loose limbs but it was the silly frog  that brought the killer gleam into his eyes. He was fearsome and I adored him all the more.


Food was a constant concern. Pak Balik failed to come with a mouse or send one via our dance teacher. He let us down. But he was the one who told us to give Yanpu the minimum dose of a liquid children's vitamin once a week and it did seem to refresh his energy.


I bought local chickens and discovered that my staff was killing them at the entrance to my house to be sure they were fresh. Please, I said dispatch them further away. I don’t want to see blood and feathers when I walk into my home!  Well, these chickens were definitely not processed or full of preservatives and absolutely fresh to say the least.  Yanpu responded well but seldom seemed as hungry as young birds are expected to be.  I feared he might be a bit bored with the available food. 


I’d read in that wonderful book, “Wesley the Owl” that his keeper fed him hearts and livers of chickens when no mice were available. A bag of fresh innards from the Ubud market arrived and I stoically cut up this messy stuff. I still laugh every time I think of Yanpu’s face when I gave him a bloody bite.  He squinched up his face, closed his eyes and hurriedly dropped the offending morsel.  It was his version of “yeck” and “ugh!” I tried to sneak in a bit of liver with other chicken bits but couldn’t get away with it. On these occasions, he  looked  genuinely offended. Well, he was a most dignified bird. Regal, in fact. He looked especially majestic when asleep on the perch, eyes closed. When younger, he collapsed in a heap to sleep. He was exhausted from his intense attention to every little thing!


We put out the word that we wanted banana leaf worms but they were not yet in season.  Nyoman had found two in her village and Yanpu relished them. I was told that earthworms were a no-no, but I do wonder about that. Then we were told that crickets would be good. Because Yanpu arrived during a10 day holiday, no crickets were available in Ubud at any of the pet stores, but a dedicated friend found some all the way in Denpasar. The crickets had their own little cage which I hung in a place safe from ants who always seem to know where an available meal can be had. To my horror I learned I would have to remove the hind legs of the crickets because they have the spurs that make cricket music when rubbed together. Those spurs might damage the owl’s throat. Happily my staff who have no problems dispatching chickens volunteered for this duty.  My how Yanpu savored those crickets, eating as many as twenty at a time! He was more enthusiastic about them than the chicken. One day I opened the cricket cage while giving them their food of grass and ferns, and saw a white cricket. Nyoman was there and we stared at each other in disbelief. What should we do, feed it to Yanpu or free it, as all things white are at least a tad sacred! While we hesitated, this cricket, also unusually large, leapt out of the cage and dropped into the plants below. We were relieved!  Truthfully I freed quite a few after I learned that crickets had disappeared from the area.  Now I have the pleasure of hearing them in the evenings along with the tree frogs.


During his time here, I invited friends to have lunch with me and “my” white owl. Among them were a painter from Hawaii, a children's book  author, some French women with their daughters, some Australian donors to my children's programs, a young woman from America with her father and others.  During all of these occasions, conversation was scarce because Yanpu was mesmerizing. You just couldn’t take your eyes off him and didn’t want to. He radiated something special and I say that it was Love. Even small children were quiet and contemplative in front of him. They visited frequently and usually called him  a Barong.  A baby Barong, I would say, because of his big eyes and the way he swayed back and forth to listen and see all around him and as I mentioned, he clacked his beak just as Barongs clack their jaws.


My eating and writing table is on the porch so I was seldom out of Yanpu’s sight.  He appeared to study me while I ate and would sometimes clack his beak so I’d  know he was ready for a bite too.  He looked so attentive when I did exercises or Yoga that I just cracked up! When I returned to the house after his death I tried to prepare myself as I climbed the stairs to my porch, to not see him there. When I arrived I forced myself to look at an enlarged photo of him to convince myself that he was dead….trying to control my grief, though not very successfully. His absence was as huge as his life.


So often as I watched him on the porch I felt deep compassion when he tried to really swoop, fly and plunge.  He could not be his true self and that is a terrible thing for any life form. Though truthfully, most of the time he seemed comfortable and content.


Evenings and early mornings were most exciting because he became very active, fly-jumping from perch to perch. I apologized when I needed to blanket his cage at night and go to bed.  I hated to curtail his fun. After covering him I always sang the same good night song to him, a melody derived from one of the old songs of the forbidden Native American Ghost Dance. This was the dance/ceremony that would bring the animals back to the ruined lives and land of the Indians. This seemed  appropriate in diminishing forest, and even more so because an owl, in the Indonesian language is called a ghost bird, “burung hantu.”

Yanpu always became very quiet when I sang this song…”Yanpu, burung hantu, we all love you, yes we do, gift of love from angels above…”


When I uncovered his cage in the mornings, he was stunned just long enough for me to open the door and rub his head and hand hug his body before he jumped into action and began observing and listening to every little movement in the forest surrounding the porch.        I was always so glad  he could, in a sense, experience the forest of his birth.


It’s been a busy year for me with no time for a rest at the beach, but since  my projects at the school here seemed safely near conclusion and Yanpu appeared to be happy in his big cage and was eating well, I decided to go to Pemuteran for three days of swimming in those health giving waters. It’s not that I don’t have projects there too. There is a small seaside temple I’ve taken care of for a few years, one of my rock circles which needs an annual a coat of varnish and an old grandmother I give healing energy to. She pays me in pumpkins, and they are small and so delicious! And I have friends there too and so was enjoying  my holiday.


When my phone rang on Wednesday morning, I felt dread. As much as I had tried to suppress my fears that Yanpu would soon die, that fear was still very present. Nyoman was crying….”He doesn’t want to eat…it’s because you’re not here…he’s collapsing….here’s the phone….” I began his goodnight song. Nyoman stroked his head. He spoke in his  endearing squeaky toy voice…how I would love to hear it again! This time it was “goodbye” and then he was dead. Miraculously, just before Nyoman called me, a Mangku from Taro who had never been to my house, arrived and gave blessings to Yanpu at the beginning of his journey. The Mangku got on the phone and explained to me that a Dewa cannot remain in earthly form for long, that it was time for him to return. But I did not feel consoled. I felt shattered.  I got out my Lakota Pipe and did a ceremony of thanks for his time among us and prayers for his journey to his true world. I instructed everyone to wrap him in white cloth with flowers and tobacco and put him in the freezer until my return in two days  And to ask the artist family nearby who create things of great beauty to make a golden box for him. Twenty minutes later, the phone rang again, a breathless Nyoman, “ibu ibu flocks of singing birds have come to the trees in front of the porch. I have never seen so many birds. I’m afraid!” “They must be angels singing him on his way.” I said


I am so fortunate the Mangku of Pemuteran is a friend.  I told him the story and showed him photos of Yanpu on my computer.  It has always been his way to  be quiet for a long time before speaking.  When he spoke at last he said, “The face of the Dewa you saw was half black because he was an owl, half white because he was a Dewa, a sacred being.  He came to be with you. He wanted to be with you, but he could not stay long.”  If this was so, I thought, then the drunken wife-beater who stole him from the nest was in his service, as well as the men who recaptured him.  Being in his service was to serve Love. Have I mentioned the current of love that shot through me every time I caressed him!


I returned on Friday to Puakan. Saturday morning I removed Yanpu from the freezer. That evening I unwrapped him and put him on my altar as I smoked my Pipe. Next morning we laid him on beautiful blue and gold cloth with his wings wide open and held in place by flowered banten.  His golden box with owl images had a window on top and looked like a sumptuous medieval reliquary. There was a bowl of white flowers and a tray of photos for all who came. It was Sunday morning, the day 60 children come to my house for dance practice and play. I was stunned that most were wearing black t-shirts.  The chief Mangku of the village officiated. He and I stood together amid clouds of incense and prayed. We both wept and we both felt love still emanated from the dead body of this great spirit. I kissed his precious beak.


The father of one of “my” children  played the bamboo flute during prayers and was accompanied by his son on the gong, making music both sweet and somber.  This man later gave me a hug, something that simply is not done in Bali!



Just as we were to place Yanpu in his coffin, it was remembered that he needed food for his journey. Some chicken was quickly found in the kitchen but no crickets remained. Someone who had pet birds jumped on his motorcycle and sped off to get some from his house. Of course we removed their hind legs and dispatched them.   As I lifted Yanpu and placed him in the golden box, one dead, though lively light blue eye, opened as if to take one last look just as I was taking my last  lingering one.


Since the day of his burial, there has been a ceremony for him at the Pura Pucak, a forest temple reputedly the oldest one in Bali. The first time I went there I knew nothing about it but felt the power of ancient spirits and have since helped to preserve it. When the chief Mangku told me he’d found feathers like Yangpu’s there, I was not surprised. During the ceremony he asked me if I’d dreamed about Yanpu and was pleased that I hadn’t. That meant there were no problems with the care and rituals for Yanpu. 


The Balian from another village confirmed this. He had sent messages concerning Yanpu through other people and I wanted to meet and thank him.  I went with friends to his house and was told that he was still in the rice field. Suddenly a highly charged elfin old gentleman popped in from a passageway, straightened his sarong, jumped up on a platform, and patted it to indicate that I should join him there. I suddenly felt really happy for the first time in days!  He sat cross-legged in front of his altar and I was just behind him.  Incense was lighted, prayers said and then he opened a dusty curtain in the altar.  Behind it was a large glowing jewel. He seemed to be consulting it. He opened and closed the little curtain a number of times.


He told me to give banten in the forest at a spot where I often sing and pray. I saw a beautiful dewi there twice and she was accompanied by two strange animals. This elf Balian, knew all about it! He said that my relationship to the forest Tonyo was good but I needed to give offerings there on special days.


People continue to come to  the house to see where Yanpu is buried. Some talk about how sad the village is. Today a woman who came said that she thought Yanpu brought hope to the village.


It is amazing to me how quickly and easily the village people accepted the presence of an avatar in their midst.! Visions, spirits, gods and magic are simply normal aspects of Balinese life. In my western way, I still ask,  How? Why? What?  But less often.


How glad I am now  that those two owl statues stand at the  entrance to my forest.  I can still see the Kelian Banjar bursting from that path, arms outstretched, with the little Yanpu gently held between his two hands.




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