The Story Owl

The Story Owl


Nancy Barrett, my photographer sister, very kindly let me share her work for this post. She has photographed many species of owls (and just about every other bird species in Ontario, wild and captive), including these Eastern Screech Owls. This rescued pair is cared for at the Mountsberg Raptor Centre.

Owls appear frequently in mythology and folklore, carrying both good and bad meaning. In some cultures, they are keepers of sacred knowledge and symbols of wisdom, protection, healing and good luck. In others – probably because owls are nocturnal – they are associated with witchcraft and dark magick, carrying messages between sorcerers and the spirit world; an owl hanging around or hooting announces the presence of a shaman or witch. Some traditions – native North American, in particular – say that owls assist with divination and prophecy. These birds are even supposed to predict the weather: a screeching owl means foul weather is coming, and an owl heard during a storm predicts an abrupt change in conditions.

Owls have also long been omens of disaster and death. The Romans believed that if travellers dreamt about an owl, they would be robbed or shipwrecked. An owl was supposed to have foretold the death of Julius Caesar and other emperors. (The birds appear as doomsayers in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Macbeth, as well as works by Sir Walter Scott, Wordsworth and others.) It was believed that an owl flying past or calling at the window of a sick person predicted their imminent demise. An Appalachian superstition says that an owl flying by day brings bad news, and an owl calling at midnight foretells coming death. On Samhain night, when spirits roam the world, owls fly down to eat the souls of the dead.


Eastern Screech Owls can also be rufous. This little fellow hangs out with a grey buddy at a local cemetery!

I believe that owls are beautiful, wonderful beasts – and that imbues them with some kind of magick! I’m fortunate to have seen and heard many of the species occurring in southern Ontario, including Great Horned, Snowy, Barred, Eastern Screech, Boreal and Northern Saw-whet (our smallest, at 7” to 8” tall). I’m very certain I shall never see a wild Barn Owl, as they are incredibly rare and listed as endangered. And during a long-ago trip to England, I even heard a Tawny Owl outside our hotel! These birds are elegant, skillful hunters, and any encounter with one is very special.

I’ve had two such recent encounters, in fact, both whilst comfortably seated in my living room! Some of you may know that I started a new blog to showcase my writing a few weeks ago, and my first post was a ghost story. As I was putting the finishing touches on the post, I heard, through the slightly-ajar window next to me, an owl’s call in the night. I knew from its distinctive descending trill that it was an Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio), a species I’ve seen and heard several times before, but never outside the home we’ve occupied for 25 years. I listened to it “talking” (possibly calling to a partner) for several minutes, and even recorded it on my phone. I was mesmerized and felt so lucky to have heard from this captivating creature.

Over the next couple of weeks, I wrote another ghostly tale, finishing it just in time for Hallowe’en. I posted it a few minutes before midnight, and continued tweaking the post for another hour or so. It was in this quiet hour that – you guessed it – the wee screechie started calling again!

Eastern-Screech-Owl-greyWell, I was bowled over, and, I have to say, just a little freaked out. Some people might say that the “coincidence” was interesting at most, but nothing other than normal. I don’t agree! The same owl (it had to be), calling for the first time as I worked on my first ghost story, then calling again as I worked on the second – at Hallowe’en, of all times – was so serendipitous that I’m still wondering at it!

Owls are non-migratory, so I’m hoping that this little owl will hang around; I know from the frequent presence of hawks that our suburban neighbourhood, with its trees, fields and even a golf course, will support birds of prey. My sister, whose gorgeous photos you see here, tells me to listen in late winter to early spring for the screech owl’s mating calls. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a pair set up their love-nest nearby?

Could this bird be some kind of totem, or spirit animal? I have decided to call this midnight visitor my Story Owl. I’m currently working on my third ghost story … what do you think will happen when it goes online???

If you would like to see more of Nancy’s nature photography, please visit her here.

Stay tuned for more owls of a different kind, coming soon!


Happy Hallowe’en!

halloween-drilled-pumpkinsAnd a blessed Samhain to all!

I’ve been wanting to try making drilled jack-o’-lanterns instead of carved ones for a couple of years now, and here they are!

I cleaned out the pumpkins first. Then, using an electric hand drill, I added geometric/floral designs using three different bit sizes (1/4” – the largest one I have – 13/64” and 5/32”). I just went by eye, not bothering to draw on a pattern first; the veins of the pumpkins help with spacing, etc.

drilled-halloween-pumpkinsAfter drilling, I had to go back and remove the “strings”, or shreds, that the drill produced on the inside, and then use a wooden chopstick to clear out debris from each hole. (The chopstick helps enlarge the holes a little, too.) The entire process was pretty time-consuming, but I like the results!

These pumpkins each have two LED tealights inside.

drilled-jack-o-lanternsI hope that tonight, when the veil between worlds is thin and our ancestors are close, the ghosties and ghoulies you encounter are of the nicest kind. May you treat and be treated well this All Hallows’ Eve!

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You are invited to join me in my parlour at Flagstones & Fog for a spooky new ghost story! – gillyflower

Mirror Magick

Mirror Magick

No one looks in a mirror to see a mirror. – Marty Rubin

creepy-old-mirrorMirror of the Soul
Mirrors have always held mystery, especially the dim looking glasses of yore. And humans have always been Narcissists; we love to gaze endlessly at ourselves! But before the concepts of light and reflection were understood scientifically, people thought mirrors possessed supernatural powers. In particular, they were supposed to be the repositories of the “shadow” soul, showing people’s true natures in the reflection. This is probably where the idea that vampires and demons – and sometimes witches – being soulless, would cast no reflection and could therefore be “caught out”. It was also believed that mirrors, sometimes just a still pond or bowl of water, could show people their fates. If the water moved and distorted the image, it meant their soul was broken, and they would see their own death!

In some traditions, mirrors were covered at night whilst the household slept, as it was believed dreaming souls wandered and could get caught inside the glass. Perhaps that’s why there’s another superstition that says mirrors are two-way portals. Your soul can go in … and other things can come out when the conditions are right. (Cue lightning, thunder and a sudden power cut.) Being in a pitch-black room with a spooky mirror can certainly be very unsettling!

I busted a mirror and got seven years bad luck, but my lawyer thinks he can get me five.
– Steven Wright

Broken Mirrors
The superstition of a broken mirror bringing seven years’ bad luck may originate with the Romans, who believed that it took seven years for a soul to regenerate. Mirrors also were once very expensive; spinning the bad luck story may have been a way for owners to protect their precious investments from careless servants!

An ancient Chinese belief is that mirrors, especially brass ones, deter evil spirits that are afraid of their own reflections. If the mirror is broken, the protection is lost.

But if you broke a mirror, it wasn’t a complete tragedy. If you immediately ground the broken shards into powder, it meant the mirror could no longer reflect anything, so ill luck could be averted. Another “remedy” was to bury a bag containing the broken pieces deep in the ground, thus mitigating the effects of such a long stretch of misfortune. In America, broken mirrors were immersed in a south-flowing river for seven hours to wash the bad luck away.

If a mirror fell on its own and smashed, however, there was no recourse: it was a sign that you would lose a good friend, or that someone in the house would soon die.

Conversely, a mirror that falls to the ground and does not break will bring good fortune!

The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried the Lady of Shalott.
– Alfred, Lord Tennyson

candle-reflected-in-old-mirrorDeath and Mirrors
In Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott, the Lady can only see the world outside her tower reflected in a mirror; when she looks directly at brave and handsome Lancelot in the glass, it breaks – and the Lady is doomed to die.

When family members died (misadventure by mirror or not), it was common practice to temporarily paint the frame black; the paint would be removed when the mourning period was over. In Jewish tradition, mirrors are covered whilst the family is sitting Shivah, the seven-day mourning period. Another custom was to cover mirrors with black cloth to prevent the departed’s soul from getting trapped inside. It was also thought that seeing your reflection in a mirror belonging to the deceased meant you would soon die, too. And in Eastern Europe, a mirror is buried with the dead to prevent the spirit from wandering and to keep evil ones from rising up again.

The mirror reflects all objects without being sullied. – Confucius

Destiny’s Reflection
Catoptromancy (also enoptromancy) is the practice of divination using mirrors, and it’s been around for a long time. The ancient Greeks predicted the future by lowering a mirror by thread until it touched the surface of a bowl of water. Whilst praying to a deity, they’d interpret what they saw in the reflections. Using a mirror as a means to remotely view a place or person, or to communicate, is called scrying. A dark basin of water, a reflective black stone such as obsidian or a dark, hazy mirror are all common scrying tools.

Other practices were employed to predict one’s fate. To find out who their future husbands would be, girls ate an apple (a love symbol) in front of a mirror, then brushed their hair. As they did so, the face of their beloved was supposed to appear over their shoulder. Actors, on the other hand, believe it’s bad luck to look at their reflection over another person’s shoulder. And you should never look into a mirror by candlelight; the dim light might reveal the shadowy face of the dead, or whatever other entity is sharing your home!

antique-silver-mirror-broochHarnessing Mirror Power
• A relaxing meditation technique involves sitting in front of a mirror and gazing steadily into your own eyes.
• If a couple sees each other in a mirror when they first meet, they will have a long and happy marriage.
• Newlyweds should stand together in front of a mirror soon after the wedding in order to unite their souls in the spirit world.
• Mirrors should never be hung so low that the tallest person in the household can’t see his or her head; it’s believed this will cause headaches.
• Following feng shui, prevent evil and negativity from entering your house by hanging a mirror on the wall opposite the front door.

It’s considered good fortune if you scare yourself with your own reflection.
I do that in the mirror every morning. Why, then, am I not the luckiest girl in the world?
– gillyflower


crystal-ball-photography-spring-treesThe prompt for this month’s Photographic Monthly Meet-Up from Wild Daffodil is Tree. This is my interpretation: a springtime forest and a patch of autumn woods as seen through a crystal photographic sphere.

I purchased this glass ball to try refraction photography. It’s an 80 mm crystal-clear globe, a gadget that promises to be super fun to play with. I’ve only used it a few times so far whilst on walks in the woods, so my images have all been treescapes. The list of possible subjects is endless: landscapes, beaches and waves, buildings and cityscapes, flowers, insects, pets, etc. The tiny bubble-encapsulated microcosm set against a blurred or bokehed background is what makes this type of photography most artful, and I’ve only used it in the most conventional sense so far, so I can’t wait to really get stuck in!

crystal-ball-photography-autumn-woodsAnd now, some physics. You’ll notice that the images within the sphere are upside down. Here’s my rather simple understanding of Index of Refraction. (With apologies to physicists everywhere.) A material’s refractive index is a number which describes the ways light travels through that material, or medium. When light enters a medium with a different index of refraction, such as water or glass, it changes speed. And, depending on the angle of the light source relative to the surface of the medium, the light rays may also change direction. An inverted image is only created when the medium is a converging lens (thicker in the middle than at the edges), such as our sphere. Hey, presto! Isn’t that just a little bit magickal?!

Photographers using a globe like this have some choices to make: keep the refracted image inverted in the final photo, or flip it so the image appears right side up. This affects the way you compose the photo. I think I prefer the inverted ones; keeps it more interesting, no?

Word is you need a zoom or macro lens for this technique. I’ve no doubt they yield awesome results, but I don’t have one, so I just used my smartphone. Photography sites offer tips and tricks for using these spheres, and I still have a lot of experimenting to do, but I was pleased with these early results.

I do love trees, and they’re one of my favourite subjects to photograph. I’m on the lookout for a lone specimen with an interesting shape or lovely gnarled branches for my next global adventure!

Next month’s prompt is Patina.

Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James

ghost-stories-ouija-board-skullAs befits the scariest month, I embarked at the beginning of October on a volume of ghost stories by British scholar and author, M.R. James. (Collected Ghost Stories, Oxford University Press, 2013.)

I must admit that, until I stumbled upon this title whilst browsing online, I’d never heard of Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936). Promotional material touts his work as some of the finest of the supernatural genre, right up there with Poe, Dickens, Conan Doyle, Lovecraft and Stoker. Indeed, the back cover claims he’s ‘considered by many to be the most terrifying writer in English.’ How could I have missed him?

This omnibus, in perpetual print since its publication in 1931, contains all of James’ ghostly tales, including the two most popular, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad and Casting the Runes. The 2013 edition starts with a lengthy introduction by Darryl Jones, Professor of English at Trinity College Dublin. If you get this book, don’t skip it; it offers valuable and fascinating information about James’ background and career, and of the ghost story form itself. There’s a timeline of the author’s life in relation to cultural events of the time, and an appendix of James’ notes on his stories.

I learned, for example, that the modern ghost story is dead. That is, proper ghost stories are always set at least a hundred years in the past, which by its archaic detail imbues the proceedings with a ready-made ambiance of mysterious antiquity and shadow.

It’s important, I think, to remember the era and environment in which James, a Victorian and a lifelong college man, was writing. Whilst I recognize how well-crafted his tales are, I did have some trouble with them at first. Modern audiences, so used to overwrought Hollywood blockbusters with catastrophic violence, blood and gore in every scene, will not, perhaps, appreciate James’ subtlety. Today’s fare consists of a continuous series of intense blast-’em-ups with no true climax, so the brief moments of horror in his stories might – as they did with me, at first – disappoint. After the third or fourth tale, however, I’d acclimatized to the author’s style, and found myself drawn in to his claustrophobic world of remote country houses and haunted inns, ancient churches, cobblestones, lamplight and fog.

James’ dénouements might also leave the reader wondering, “Is that it?” – or, “What happened?” The demons and fiends which so terrorize our protagonists are always shadily-sketched, and endings can often be abrupt and more than a little vague. And, as I’ve mentioned, the story arcs, whilst concise – as all good short stories should be – are rather more gentle than the sensationalism we’re used to. But all of these, I believe, are precisely what make James’ works so skillful. Rather than over-the-top, jump-out-of-your-seat horror, the ghost stories of M.R. James are designed to evoke a creeping sense of spookiness, of suspicion, mystery, paranoia and doubt. If you’re looking for some deliciously gothic shivers this season, do give this book a try.

In James’ honour, I’ve tried my hand at penning a Victorian ghost story. You’ll find it on my new creative writing site, Flagstones & Fog. The blog is intended to be a repository for my occasional jottings – short stories, poetry, book reviews, perhaps excerpts from the novel I’ve been working on for a very long time (and perhaps will never finish). I’d be exceedingly pleased if you paid me a visit there!

Autumn Craft: Fabric Pumpkins

Autumn Craft: Fabric Pumpkins

Happy Thanksgiving from Canada! Here is a craft to get you in an autumnal mood. These cheerful fabric pumpkins make me happy every time I look at them, and they were pretty simple to put together. I made the four shown here in one evening – and I got to use my new sewing machine for the first time! (Really, each pumpkin requires only one sewn seam, plus a bit of hand basting.)

fabric-pumpkinsThe idea came from Pinterest; there are lots of examples and tutorials out there. I used this tutorial, but after trying it changed one step. I also finished the pumpkins using my own variation on the leaves. See the tutorial for step-by-step instructions with photos; I’ve included my version (without pictures) below.

diy-fabric-pumpkinsThis project is a great way to use up fabric scraps in your stash. (I found an orange polyester tablecloth and plaid cotton placemat, plus the wide green ribbon at the dollar store; the smallest multicoloured pumpkin is made from a fat quarter I already had.) I used typical autumnal colours, but you could go non-traditional to fit your décor, use cotton, muslin, flannel or burlap, and add any type of embellishment you like. A gathering of these pumpkins would make a great centerpiece, or would be wonderful to sell at a bazaar. Imagine a whole table covered with these bright beauties!

To make this project, you’ll need:

fabric for pumpkin • sewing machine (optional) • needle & thread • polyfil stuffing or batting • twine, string, yarn, embroidery floss or narrow ribbon for “veins” • glue gun • small stick or cinnamon stick • ribbon, felt or fabric for leaves, or artificial leaves • raffia, twine, wired twine or pipe cleaners for tendrils (optional, not shown)

The Pinterest tutorial gives directions for round or squat pumpkins. I like the squatty ones – plus, they sit better; to get this shape, the fabric length needs to be two and a half times the width. (For round pumpkins, the length is two times the width.) I cut the fabric for my pumpkins as follows:

6 inch dia. pumpkin (orange):  10” x 25”
5 inch dia. pumpkin (plaid):  8” x 20”
4 inch dia. pumpkin (orange):  6” x 15”
3 inch dia. pumpkin (multi):  5” x 12.5”

small-fabric-pumpkinsNow, start making!

• Cut pumpkin fabric and fold lengthwise with right sides together so that the short ends meet. Machine- or hand-stitch the short end closed using a 1/2 inch seam allowance. This is the pumpkin’s side seam.
(This is the step I changed from the Pinterest tutorial) With right sides still together, hand-baste a loose running stitch around one open end of the pumpkin, using a 3/4 inch seam allowance. Pull the thread ends to gather the fabric evenly and tie off as tightly as possible with several knots. This is the bottom of the pumpkin.
• Turn fabric right side out. Check the gathered bottom to make sure no raw edges are showing to the outside; if they are, poke them back in and adjust the gathers as needed.
• As you did for the bottom, hand-baste a gathering stitch around the top of the pumpkin. Gather slightly but don’t tie any knots.
• Fill pumpkin with stuffing until fairly firm.
• Gather the top closed and tie off as tightly as possible with several knots.
• Cut three lengths of twine (etc.) that will encircle the pumpkin to create vertical “veins”, dividing it into 6 sections. Wrap each piece around the pumpkin, tying at the top. When adding the last piece, loop it around the first two underneath the pumpkin to help keep them centred and in place. Trim ends.
• Cut stick (I found a fallen branch with lichen on it) to desired length for the stem. Add a dab of hot glue to the centre top of pumpkin and push in the stick. A cinnamon stick would also make a lovely, fragrant stem!
• To hide the knots around the base of the stem, add leafy embellishments: cut leaves from fabric or felt (or use artificial leaves) and hot-glue them to the pumpkin. Instead of leaves, I used 1.5” sheer ribbon, looping and tying it loosely around the stem and tacking it down with hot glue.
• If you’ve added leaves, you might want to finish the pumpkin by tying raffia, twine or ribbon around the stem. “Tendrils” can be created by winding wired twine, ribbon or pipe cleaners around a pencil or marker and fastening the curlicues around the stem.

I think this method would be perfect for a pincushion, too. I’ll probably try to make a velvet pumpkin- or tomato-shaped pincushion. (See more about my passion for pincushions here.) Stay tuned!autumn-fabric-pumpkins


Welcome, October – my favourite month! A season of jewel-coloured days and inky nights, crisp apples and snuggly sweaters and pumpkin everything, ghosties, ghoulies and cackling ’round the cauldron. ’Tis the Witching Month, the time of Samhain, and it’s when I truly come alive.

Over the next 31 days, I’ll be reading a volume of ghost stories by M.R. James, whose spine-tingling work is considered some of the best in the genre.

I’m expecting my new sewing machine to arrive any day now, so I’ll be trying some basic projects to get used to its features. (I sewed a lot when I was much younger but haven’t done any machine stitching for many years.) I hope to share some of the results. A good way to keep busy as the days get colder!

October is also Pumpkin Month, so I’ll be doing a couple of craft projects involving pumpkins – both real and, well, not.

There’ll be some witchy stuff, too, including another installment in my “Magick” series – a really spooky one, in keeping with the situation!

And, if the weather permits and I can get out to my favourite places, perhaps I’ll share pictures of a country jaunt, or the changing leaves using a new photographic technique which will nicely fit Wild Daffodil’s Photographic Monthly Meet-Up prompt of “Tree”.

In the meantime, here is a sampling of Octobers past.autumn-fall-October

Wishing you the most comfortably cosy, deliciously eerie and shiveringly scary October!


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