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Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

Sunflower Seeds

Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

“Alfie & Me” by Carl Safina

A friend recently gave me a marvelous new book to read during my recovery from hip surgery. It’s called Alfie & Me: What Owls Know, What Humans Believe by the award-winning ecologist Carl Safina. The book tells the story of how Safina and his wife Patricia, on their Long Island property, rescued, raised, and freed an orphaned screech owl they dubbed Alfie. But it’s so much more than a story about a cute little owl. (Screech owls are only about 8 inches tall.) As one reviewer so beautifully wrote, the book is also “a fervent homage to a dynamic interdependent universe.” (Kirkus Reviews)

When Safina and his wife first find Alfie, she is near death. Seeing the first photo of Alfie (the book has eight pages of colored photos documenting Alfie’s life), I found it hard even to tell she was an owl. But the Safina’s had experience rescuing animals, so, through hard work and infinite patience, they gradually brought the tiny owlet back to life. From the beginning, their goal was not to tame Alfie, but to one day give her the freedom to live an owl’s life independent of them. At first, because of her fragility, Alfie had to be confined to their house. But eventually she was given a large screened in area out back where she could be outside and freely practice her flying while being safe from predators.

Owls have been called “nature’s original stealth bomber.” Their unique feathers enable them to fly silently. Their prey never hear them coming.

One day when Safina goes into the screened in area to feed a defrosted mouse to Alfie, he intentionally leaves the door wide open. Sure enough, after eating, Alfie flies out the door and heads into the woods surrounding their yard. Later, she returns hungry, but over time her flights take her deeper into the woods and back. One time when she returns with a moth in her beak, Safina is elated. Alfie was learning to hunt. She was becoming a real owl.

One of the most fascinating sections of the book for me was Alfie’s finding of a mate who Safina calls Plus-One. The story of their courtship is tender, lovely, and sexy! Plus-One at first brings food to Alfie: insects, moles, small birds. They begin to “passionately” seek each other in the woods. They sit together on a branch for long periods of time making low and soft sounds. Then they begin to groom each other. All these behaviors increase their trust in each other and strengthen their bond. Finally, Safina witnesses their copulation—not just once, but many times over the course of several weeks. A short time later, when both owls are away from their nesting box, Safina crawls up a ladder to check their nest and discovers not one but three eggs! In time, all three eggs hatch. Anyone who has ever raised a child will appreciate the hard work both parents are required to do to keep their growing children well fed and safe.

An adult owl feeding its hungry chick. Fortunately for Alfie’s three chicks, Plus-One was an excellent provider.

Safina weaves into the story of Alfie his vast understanding of history, science, world philosophies, and world religions. Here are a few quotes from the book that caused me to reflect:

  • Safina writes: “Capacity for astonishment makes a superior being.” I like that! Then he quotes James Somer who wrote on his blog: “In (biology) textbooks, astonishing facts were presented without astonishment. Someone probably told me that every cell in my body has the same DNA. But no one shook me by the shoulders, saying how crazy that was.” (I thought: isn’t that the role of a good teacher, parent, grandparent: to shake the shoulders of the younger generation and call their attention to the incredible, fascinating, astonishing world we are a part of?!)
  • Safina laments the “me first” attitude he sees in our U.S. founding documents compared to the “communal focus” he sees in several other countries. He contrasts our “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” with the French Revolution’s “Liberty, equality, fraternity.” He writes, “Imagine a nation predicated on the pursuit of things such as community… compassion… service… equality… nurturance.”
  • He quotes the Hindu Upanishads: “Those who realize that all life is one are at home everywhere and see themselves in all beings.”
  • Recently a University of Oxford professor told the BBC news, though their major was biology, “Half of our first year students can’t name five birds (that are native to Britain), and 20% can’t name one.” Question: can you name five birds that are native to your country?
  • In 2007, the Oxford Junior Dictionary began dropping words like heron, leopard, oyster, otter, magpie, and lark because they weren’t being used enough. Instead, they added words such as bandwidth, chatroom, block graph, and celebrity. “Author Robert Macfarlane stated the obvious problem: We cannot know what we cannot name; we cannot care about what we do not know. As we erode the natural, we lose our desire to know, and then we forget how to remember.”

Alfie & Me is a refreshing and important book. I agree with Isabella Rossellini who said it is “a unique book that is both scientific and spiritual.” And with Jennifer Ackerman who wrote, “The book is brilliant. It made me laugh, weep, marvel.” For me, the book made me mostly marvel. Yes, definitely marvel!

Reflection questions:

Is there anything in this reflection that stood out for you?

Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve tried to save an injured animal (other than human)? If so what prompted you to do that? Were you successful or not?

Do you have a favorite bird? Why is it your favorite?

When have you felt the connectedness of all of creation? (Example: April 8th a solar eclipse will pass over parts of Mexico, the U.S. [from Texas through Maine], and Canada. We living near Cleveland, OH will experience the eclipse starting at 1:59 pm and ending at 4:29 pm. We will enjoy the total eclipse from 3:15 to 3:17. Even the Cleveland Guardians Opener is scheduled to respect this phenomenon. Game starts at 5:10 but gates are open at 2:00 so fans can view the eclipse from the comfort of their seats inside the stadium!)


PS: I will be giving an afternoon retreat reflection via zoom on Sunday, May 19, 2024 sponsored by the Portiuncula Center for Prayer in Frankfort, IL. The program runs from 1:30 – 4:00 (Central) and is entitled Finding God in the Ordinary and Amazing. Together we will explore some of the ordinary and amazing ways God breaks into our lives: through the wonders of nature, the joy of friendship, prayer, a news headline, a favorite song, a small child, our personal pain and sorrow. Using prayer, scripture, music, short videos, humor, and sharing, hopefully our time together will be inspiring, encouraging, and relaxing! The fee is whatever donation you can make. Check their website for more details: It would be wonderful to meet some of you via zoom that afternoon!

PS #2: Last week, one of our readers, Sr. Jo Zeitz, SND, mentioned the calligraphy project she had just completed at Clearwater Central Catholic in FL. Here is picture of her with part of that project: a calligraphy mural on the “Educational Vision and Principles of the Sisters of Notre Dame.” She also did more beautiful calligraphy on the walls of the school chapel. Sister Jo has been doing calligraphy since she was 12 years old. She accomplished this incredible art work despite limitations in her vision and her mobility! She says, “I hope to continue ‘Proclaiming the Beauty of the Word’ (my motto) for as long as I live.” Sister Jo is truly amazing!


I’m offering you two videos this week. The first ( 4mins.) is Pope Francis’ “Prayer for Our Earth” from his encyclical Laudato Si! This particular version is the prayer set to music and powerful images. The second video, featuring naturalist Robert E. Fuller, is a 50 minute video called “Wild Tawny Owls Adopt 6 Orphaned Owlets.” It tells the fascinating and true story of a pair of adult owls, Luna and Bomber, who, when their own eggs prove to be infertile, end up adopting and raising six orphaned owlets! It’s filled with incredible footage from both inside and outside the owls’ nest. Hard-working Luna and Bomber reminded me very much of Alfie and Plus-One.

“Prayer for Our Earth”:

“Wild Tawny Owls”:

I hope some of you will write a comment below on any aspect of this week’s blog. We would all love to hear from you!

11 Responses

  1. Thank you for writing about Alfie and Me. I plan to read the book soon.
    The male cardinal has become my favorite since my husband passed away. Every time I see one, I think of him. He loved the St. Louis Cardinal baseball team. I’m seeing quite a few these days in the Arkansas Ozarks as they vie for the attention of the females.

  2. A very tiny kitten came under my care, under a week old. With guidance from experts, feedings came from first a medicine dropper, then a large syringe. Eventually she was able to feed herself. A few years later, she suffered a traumatic brain injury, and was paralyzed on one side. Her urine became bloody. We went back to hand feeding, and added antibiotics. Gradually she regained use of her affected side, propping herself up against a wall, teaching herself how to walk again. In the end, she was cross-eyed, but otherwise fine. That’s the story of Alley Cat. She was our darling for many years. A woman we called the Cat Lady offered this: humans give up on injured cats way before cats do. Alley was one determined kitty.

  3. Good afternoon, Sr. Melannie…
    Good afternoon, all…

    Such a beautiful story! Another book I must buy — and all because of your blog. Thank you! Loved the song, will watch the video soon. Your excitement for books is writ large with every word you write — a palpable love song for reading!

  4. I’m always fascinated by accounts others have shared of caring for our gifts in nature. My sister Lovey& I tried caring for a baby bird that fell out of a nest in our garage once. Alas, the fall and lack of the mother’s feeding, it didn’t survive. My favorite bird is the cardinal. I enjoyed this past summer, watching in a shrub outside my dining room window, a pair building a nest and hatching two eggs. Then dismantling the nest in late fall. Fascinating creatures and a blessing to share time with them for a while.
    Loved the video of prayer for our earth. Thanks for sharing Melannie.

  5. What a great blog! I would have to say the Bald Eagle and the Hummingbird are my favorites.
    Thank you so much for your blogs.

  6. Thanks Melannie: Have you herd about Flaco? (No relation to our quarterback!) He’s the owl who got out of the Bronx Zoo last year and spent the year on the lam in Manhattan until he crashed into a building last week and died. Quite a guy charming everyone from scientists to children all year. Owls are my favorite birds for now. I took a course on them online from Cornell University during the pandemic. Amazing! We have many here in our yard and their haunting evening mating calls just charm me to sleep. I’ve been wanting to get this book.Thaks for sharing it. I learned from the course that owls have two strategies for capturing prey: Sit. Wait. I can learn a lot from that. Mary Ann Flannery

  7. Thanks again for a Beautiful beginning to the week. Love this!
    I am also reading this book, gifted to me as a New Year’s treat.
    I’ve learned a lot from these precious creatures, the book and your video!
    The first time I heard a screech owl in our yard, I just know there was a big fight and would find something horrible in the morning. But found nothing. Several nights the same thing. After some research, I learned what the noise was, and listened for it nightly. I was so enthralled with owls, I took a course on owls.
    Owls are truly a gift.

  8. I knew her as Sr St Kenneth
    She taught me calligraphy over 50 years ago and now I am teaching my granddaughter!

    Beautiful work!!!!!

  9. Hi Sr Melannie and all. Funny story about when my roommate and I were raising my grandniece and grandnephew. My roommate was always telling the kids that all birds, bugs, and animals were God’s creatures and how we needed to care for them. My grandnephew went to school with me one day when I was teaching in a special education class. The students were all boys. At recess, tiny frogs were all over the road between the playground and a nearby stream. The boys were trying to catch them and were putting them in their pockets to bring into school. My grandnephew told them that they were all God’s precious creatures and they needed to be taken care of, so the boys began to gather them up to put back in the stream. My class “got in trouble” because they were in the area by the stream. The recess monitor said she did everything she could do to keep from laughing about the boys “ rescuing God’s precious creatures”. I knew my roommate’s lesson was learned. Even to this day he has a soft spot for all God’s creatures. I am amazed at his tenderness when it comes to animals.

  10. Hi Sr. Melanie. I’m reading this blog late (as usual) and was going to mention Flaco, but I see another of your readers already did. My mother loved birds of all kinds; her favorites were owls, cardinals and hummingbirds. She left us a number of years ago, but they say whenever you see a cardinal, it is your loved one reminding you that they are always watching over you. I am going to sign up for your May 19th Zoom retreat; I’ve just put a reminder in my phone. Looking forward to it. My prayers for your continued healing from your hip surgery!

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Meet Sr. Melannie

Hi and welcome to my blog! I’m Sister Melannie, a Sister of Notre Dame residing in Chardon, Ohio, USA. I’ve been very lucky! I was raised in a loving family on a small farm in northeast Ohio. I also entered the SNDs right after high school. Over the years, my ministries have included high school and college teaching, novice director, congregational leadership, spiritual direction, retreat facilitating, and writing. I hope you enjoy “Sunflower Seeds” and will consider subscribing below. I’d love to have you in our “sunflower community.” Thank you!

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Finding God in the Ordinary and Amazing: An Afternoon with Sister Melannie

Sunday, May 19, 2024 – 1:30 – 4:00 Central – via zoom

Sponsored by the Portiuncula Center for Prayer – Frankfort, Illinois

Fee: Donation

For details visit: [email protected]

Weekend retreat at Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center, Pulaski, PA
October 11-13, 2024

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