For a few weeks I’d been hearing about the famous Berkeley owls of Claremont Canyon. A pair of Great Horned Owls had built a nest right along a popular hiking trail about two minutes from the Claremont Hotel, and were raising one or two chicks. They had become avian celebrities, delighting hikers and dog-walkers even as they would swoop down at passing dogs whom they perceived as a threat to their young.
On Sunday morning, Sam and I headed over to take a look. We joined the little crowd of paparazzi ogling and photographing the nest. It was in a eucalyptus right next to the trail, and a chick was easily visible even without binoculars. It took a while to spot the mother owl, who was keeping watch from a tree about twenty yards away, but we eventually found her too.
“Didn’t the owl in Winnie the Pooh have a sign pointing directly to his house? Don’t they all have that?” joked my friend Susie today when I was giving her directions on how to find the nest.
It struck me that nearly all of us urban Americans — myself included — are much more familiar with fictional, cartoon or designer owls than we are with real ones. Think about it. Owls are common in children’s books (Sam and the Firefly! Hedwig in Harry Potter! Owl in Winnie the Pooh!) and marketing (from the low-tech owl on those old bags of Wise potato chips to the high-tech, stylized owl logo of Hootsuite). Most of us come up with an image of owls based on these caricatures rather than on the actual bird.
That’s true for a lot of nature — even spilling over into food. I consumed a lot more cherry Life Savers than actual cherries when I was a kid. And Cherry Life Savers taste nothing like actual cherries. In fact, they taste nothing like fruit.
Yet if you asked me as a child what “cherry” tasted like, I would have immediately thought of the Life Saver. I still sort of do. Ditto for a bunch of other fruit flavors… pineapple, grape, lemon. Even though a grape Popsicle is a far cry from what an actual vineyard-grown grape tastes like.
I know this isn’t the biggest deal in the world. Civilization isn’t going to rise or fall because most American kids have seen more Disney birds and animals than real, living birds and animals.
But still, it’s a little unnerving.
We all think we “know” animals and birds and plants and the food we eat.
While in reality, that “knowledge” has been filtered and mediated and refracted through the pervasive fun-house mirror of mass media and marketing.