Christmas Bells

Christmas Bells
Christmas Bells - Blandfordia nobilis

Monday, October 06, 2008

Barking Owl call - origin of "lost child" stories?

I have tonight written a bit of an essay on the call of the Barking Owl, as a possible source of the "Lost Child" theme in Australian Art and Literature.

On another forum I had written that the Barking Owl has this famous screaming call which is linked to the early colonial anxiety about the alien land in which the early settlers felt themselves to have been abandoned. Someone on that other forum had the temerity to scoff at my comment (which pissed me off a bit). This guy said he had never heard that story about a Barking Owl making a scream. I got a bit stroppy about that, as I have heard this call myself, once, and it is remarkable.

Once heard, one will never forget it. I could not provide a link to anything other than the 'woof-woof" call for which the bird is named.

Fortunately, another member of the forum came to support my claim, with a link to the "wavering human-like scream" call of the Barking Owl. Click here to listen to the call.

The full article on the Barking Owl is found at:
From there you can jump to other related Ninox genus owls, or search by name for other Australian owls. It is a pretty extraordinary website.

Lost Child themes.

"Lost Children" stories are abundant, and reveal the anxiety of early settlers in a strange and alien land. It is important in early colonial art, e.g., McCubbin's famous painting: "lost child".

Lest you think I am being facetious, here (and I am not), I acknowledge that many children did go missing in the bush, in early Australia. This is demonstrated by the famous memorial in the Daylesford cemetery (Victoria).

However, far more searches were organised, on account of the mysterious "cries for help" which were heard by early settlers, than were ever matched to actual reported missing children. The "lost child" motif was the archetypical symbol of anxiety in early Colonial Australia.

This theme is taken seriously in Australian art and literary studies, but few people, even the Academics, realise it has its origins in the scary call of the Barking Owl.

Here is a formal academic essay about the Lost Child in early Australian literature

  • "the image of the bush-lost child was uniquely Australian, ..... Australian Aborigines usually feature in stories of bush-lost children as ‘black trackers’—a means by which European settlers recovered their children (dead or alive) from the land. The image of the bush-lost child, and the associated bush search scenario, rapidly came to be regarded as an affirmation of community ....
  • "lost children were cast as passive victims and, if they were found alive, their survival was attributed either to divine intervention or to the actions of their rescuers, who were usually men (rarely women) and/or Aboriginal trackers working under the orders of European settlers. Bush-lost children who died (or, worse, were never found) were understood as warnings against the seductive lure of the Australian bush and the fragility of life on the margins of European settlement. As Pierce (1999) points out, one of the literary conventions of the Victorian era was to use a child to symbolize the future, and these early lost child stories can thus be seen as indicators of a deep unease about the European presence in Australia." (Gough, N. "Lost Children" - Latrobe University)
And to keep my promise to Mosura who asked about trains at the Robertson Railway Fair. These images fit with tonight's theme of the lost child theme of our alien land.

Here is the 3830 Steam Engine appearing out of the gloom of a famous Robertson fog. The first photo was taken at about 80 metres distance, at 3:58 pm, yesterday.
The second photo was taken at about 40 metres, just before the train steamed past me. Even for me, this qualifies as a serious Robertson fog. The numbers 38 and 30 are just visible, in this dull light. There will be more photos tomorrow, for any "train spotters".How easy would it be to get lost in such a thick fog, which formed abruptly, at 3:58pm on the first day of Daylight Saving? This is not trick photography.


mick said...

Thanks for a very interesting post and the links you provided will make for lots more interesting reading. The photos of the train coming out of the fog are great but I am very glad I am not caught in that fog and trying to drive home!

Mosura said...

That owl scream would be a little disturbing if you were on your own.

Love the loco shots. A Steam loco in fog is a great combination.

I was trying to think of European example of your "Lost Child" theme. All I could come up with was Hansel and Gretel :-) I think European folklore, particularly Scottish which I;m more familiar with, shows a bigger fear of witches, fairies, and wolves, and selkies but I guess it still revolves around a fear of forests and lonely places.

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Mosura
Hansel and Gretel is a good parallel. Fear of the unknown seems to be the key. These days, TV in particular, and the News, focuses on urban threats - other people.
I'm glad you liked the steam train in the fog. More tonight.

Mick, the Owls site looks very interesting. Lots of good reference points there. Re driving in the fog, fortunately I had to go less than 1 Km, and so, going at 20KPH did not pose a problem.


Duncan said...

Thanks for posting that link Denis, a good site. I've heard the barking call but not the scream. When out owling a year ago we thought we had a Barking Owl at close quarters, sounding annoyed, but gradually the nature of the call changed into typical Boobook. The expert told us Boobooks have a warm up call that sounds like barking.

Snail said...

Denis, that owl site is excellent. Thanks for the link.

There's a sound file of a barking owl doing its barking call at Birds in Backyards. (If I haven't messed up the html, that should take you directly to it.