Features & Stories


Story and photo by Trudy Frisk

Itís one of the fundamental natural differences. Larks and Owls. Morning creatures and evening creatures. Innate biorhythms governed by light affect plants, birds and animals.

The garden at dawn
Other species seem quite content with the situation. Thatís probably because all members of a species are either diurnal (day) or nocturnal (night). Sure, there may be an occasional wolf which resists going out to hunt with the pack at night, but peer pressure would soon change its mind. Possibly some laggard deer object to browsing at 5:00 a.m. in the relative safety of the herd. They donít last long.

No, the problem arises when the two opposing behaviours, natural cycles over which we have no control, occur in the same species, as they do in humans. Opposites must attract. Larks and owls always seem to team up, leading to controversy, misunderstanding and downright heated arguments.

But, since weíre both here, there must be some evolutionary advantage, donít you think?

Well, when we were hunters, we were active when the game was, which meant being on the trail in the morning or early evening. More likely early morning. No rational hunter would want to cut up a carcass and drag it back to camp while followed closely by a cave lion or pack of jackals in the gathering dusk. Morning was an advantageous time.

The coming of agriculture didnít change the routine much. Nobody has to tell a farmer about the benefits of getting up and at Ďem early in the day.

Cut that hay at first light. Itís comfortable for the man on the mower and the hay has a good chance of drying in the sun during the day. The same goes for picking crops; once the overnight moistureís dried, the earlier, the better.

Ask any dairy cow if sheíd prefer a longer sleep to an early milking and youíll get a resounding "Moo". Range cattle solve the problem themselves. They graze until itís too hot, then settle down together under a large tree to chew their cuds and doze away the afternoon. Bovine siestas!

Of course, for most of human history, natural light was all the light we had to work by so our ancestors took advantage of it. Thatís changed. Ancient flint knappers may have needed good strong sun, but artificial light keeps modern factories going round the clock. Even farmers, with lights on their equipment, can be out in the fields before dawn and long after dark. But, old habits linger.

If the evolutionary benefits of larks are so obvious, what about us owls? What part did we play in the success of humanity?

For, here we are. If you doubt it, wake one of us, when weíre not ready and the grumping will convince you.

Larks have a certain cheery smugness which, coupled with their belief that they, alone, keep the wheels turning, makes us even crankier. "Why, I was up at 5:30.", youíll hear them say. The unspoken, "While you were lolling in bed, you lazy wretch." is understood. "Itís the most beautiful time of day," they insist. "All the birds are up."

Well, Iíve been up at 5:30 and it is lovely, and the birds, as promised, are chirping. I feed them, tour the garden, and, like a sensible person, go back for a longer snooze.

Itís not that owls arenít productive; in fact most of us have day jobs. We just donít want to go for a nice 10k run at 4:30 or whenever itís dawn. We donít like to do complicated mathematics, bake a cake or install a new floor before our bodies and minds are awake and ready.

Now thereís medical evidence that we shouldnít. Recent research at the Mayo Clinic proves that human blood vessels are less flexible in the early morning. Experiments, done on healthy young people, showed that flexibility was reduced by more than 40% at 6:00 a.m. By ll:00 a.m it returns to normal. Heart attacks and strokes are more likely to occur in the early morning.

So, we owls are just following our bodyís instructions. "Take it easy. No sudden moves. By about ll:00 am. youíll be ready to go!"

So, you ask, even if itís natural, what good are owls? Well, I think we kept the tribe together. Have you noticed that larks arenít the most sociable creatures? Theyíre just so pleased, the busy little creatures, to be grabbing the first gazelle or leading the dawn climb up Mt. Whitney, but, come 8:00 p.m., theyíre in the tent mumbling "Keep it down out there!" as the rest of us sit around the campfire inventing new verses to Kumbaya.

It was likely just the same in pioneer times. After a hard day fording river and finding trails, some of the westward migrants must have wanted to tune up the banjo and sing a few choruses of "The Old Chisholm Trail" or "The Red River Valley". It was a chance to chat a bit with your neighbour without yelling at him to get his ox- cart out of the way. Iíll just bet the larks threatened to come out with a whip and shut the whole party down. Some things never change.

What good did we do in ancient times? I believe owls were the artists and philosophers, the shaman, priests, teachers. After all, to observe the movement of stars and planets in the night sky, one has to be awake to see them, and have leisure to calculate their orbits. Itís possible, but itís not likely, that one can devise a totem mask or spirited dance while hunting or plowing. And, who but the shaman had the time to consider the meaning of life, and the significance of other creatures and their spirits to the tribe?

Food was essential to the group but so were the social and religious bonds which made them a community.

I think owls composed ballads, told stories, and created ceremonies which united the tribe and kept their history alive, and were just as important for survival as physical nourishment.

Owls were probably regarded with suspicion then, too. After all, they were abroad in the dark, studying strange matters, when decent larks were safely in bed. Odd or not, owls expressed the legends and beliefs of their people, as writers, actors, painters, and musicians still do today; just as long as weíre not awakened too early.

Other articles by Trudy Frisk

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