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Can Animals Be Holy?

A new book makes us question the sacred, the human and the future of our world

Source: HobOsterlund/usedwithpermission

How do you define home? In her dazzling new book Holy Mōlī, Hob Osterlund does it this way “Home: a place I belong, a place where I am forgiven and forgiving. A place where I am authentic, where I laugh, where ancestors visit my dreams. A place where there is justice…A place where birds lead the way.”

In terms of full disclosure, I know Hob. She's one of those magical practitioners of humor: a nurse who has worked with every kind of patient from the most impoverished in undeveloped nations to working with sick children in American hospitals and she has interwoven healing and the life of the comic in seamless ways.

I first met her at a conference held by the AATH (American Association for Therapeutic Humor) where we shared some wild laughs and big ideas, and then she invited me to participate in the Pacific Writer's Conference in Kaua'i, where she lives. I followed Hob's journey in writing this book and so I can't speak as a disinterested reviewer.

But I can speak as an amazed reader.

I've just sat down with the final version, published by Oregon State University Press, and I was swept off my feet and into the skies both by the author's prose and by the stories she tells. The ostensible subject of the book is the life of albatross-- that's a plural, by the way-- who, after more than a thousand years, found their way back to Kaua'i after having made their homes elsewhere.

Hob blends the most effective kinds of science writing (think National Geographic; think Nature; think the science section of The New York Times) and tells us about the birds in ways that make them feel like familiar characters. Not only does she demystify and explain the bad rap they got from Coleridge, she helps ordinary fans of Audubon and bird-watching clubs—and the rest of us--to learn about a species shrouded in folklore and mythology.

Yet at the heart of the book is Hob's own story.

In exquisitely honest passages examining her own flight- paths through life, Hob takes us from her childhood as a falsely brave, motherless daughter to her role as an authentically courageous woman of integrity, leadership, and wisdom.

Not only is she an accomplished writer and renowned humor-practitioner, Hob Osterlund is the founder of the Kaua'i Albatross Network, which works with Cornell University to care for the birds that she calls "holy mōlī" --mōlī being the Hawaiian word for the albatross.

The book is funny, inspiring, entirely absorbing, and I dare anyone to read it without wishing to experience an encounter with these creatures, the albatross that Hob regards as her “guardian ancestors in animal form.”

But, as a woman who also lost her mother at an early age, the parts that really got to me were Hob's astonishingly accurate depictions of what it feels like to lose a mother young: "There is no such thing as a good time for your mother to die,” Hob writes. “If you're very young like I was, there's another dimension. I adored my mother. I adored her too much to be a separate being. Virtually everything I did was a reflection of her. If she was dead, how could I not be dead too? I lost my footing and my weight; I became a cloud of ash swirling over a foreign landscape, my compass spinning, my clock broken."

That’s it; that’s the loss of a mother. That’s the feeling. That’s the most accurate description of a mother’s death I’ve ever read.

I'll be buying copies of this book for my bird-watching friends, for my friends who are going through their own transitions, friends who are setting out on new paths, and for friends who are encountering the LGBT experience on their own or within their families (there are wonderful sections in the book about same-sex albatross couples courting and raising families together, thereby disproving the idea that only heterosexuality is found in the animal kingdom). I'll be cherishing my own copy to read again when I need to be reminded, in both humility and exhilaration, that we share the earth with others.

This is perhaps the passage that most fully makes my heart soar: "I know one thing for sure about albatross: they are always completely themselves. In such purity there is raw perfection,” the author tells us. “When I can feel that perfection, I can see glimpses of perfection in myself and others. The kind of perfection that is the birthright of all of us. The kind of perfection we feel best in the company of newborns and baby animals. The kind of perfection that makes us know we belong. The kind of perfection that allows room for everyone else."

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