The comic book is Owly: Tiny Tales by Andy Runton. It’s a collection of short and mini comics about his character Owly, so I suggest starting with volume one instead, but you can read them in any order. I’ve loved them for years, since I first started reading comics around 2008-2009. (Comics are now one of my great passions.) Owly both inspired me and helped me cope with sensory barriers I had to gardening.
Each Owly book is about him meeting other forest creatures, and usually the animals are scared at first because he’s an owl, and that makes him sad because he loves everyone and wants to help. Over time, the other animal realizes that, and there’s a happy ending. We see him building birdhouses and birdbaths, planting gardens, rescuing trapped animals and nursing sick ones, and having nice times with his growing network of friends as they pass in and out through the seasons. It’s cottagecore before that was a thing, advocating for treating nature gently. The books were originally wordless, but the new reissues in color have some words in them to make it easier for parents to read them aloud to kids. I often struggle to follow wordless comics because of The Autism and difficulty with sequencing story images/inferring intent and emotions, but Owly I always understood, maybe because his little emotions were the same as mine.
In January of 2020, I found out that Andy Runton also lives in Georgia and was going to be doing a signing in Atlanta at the Little Shop of Stories, a bookstore I’d been meaning to check out for a while. Before the signing, I reread all my copies of the Owly books. It reminded me how my first thought on seeing my new backyard, three years before, was “this would make a great wildlife garden!” It reminded me how much I love animals, and that even small things can be done to help them, like planting good flowers to feed the bees. It also made me feel guilty that I’d ignored the project I wanted to do for three years.
Here’s the thing: gardening is, or can be, a sensory hell for me. Feeling damp is the worst sensation I know of, other than serious physical pain from an injury. Autistic people know what “sensory hell” means, but I really don’t know how to convey it to neurotypical people except that it can be utterly intolerable, and while sometimes exposure can reduce sensitivity, it can’t be forced and most autistic people will never get over their sensory hell. It’s biological. Possibly worse than the damp, though, because I’ve developed ways to work around that which we can discuss later, was the prospect of having to touch gross things. Dirt and bugs. Having to turn over dirt or leaves and cringe at the possibilities. I genuinely didn’t know if I could do it, no matter how much I wanted that wildlife garden. That’s where Tiny Tales comes in — specifically the story “Helping Hands.” (You can read it for free on the Owly site.)
In the story, Owly’s friend Bunny doesn’t want to get her paws dirty, and he remembers that when he was little, he didn’t want to get his wings dirty either. His mother didn’t mind that, and gave him little gloves so he wouldn’t have to touch the dirt. He looks down at his gloves, understands his friend being scared, and gives her gloves too. When I read that, I just started crying, because it was so gentle and empathetic and not trying to teach or force someone not to be scared of something “silly,” or even not to be too fussy, but just offering an accommodation for them so they can participate too. Right then I decided to get a pair of gardening gloves and get started, and I did. I’m still working on making that backyard a wildlife garden, but I’ve welcomed so many animals into it anyway, because they don’t care if it’s perfect. I’ve planted pollinators, and see hordes of bees. I stumbled into vegetable gardening, homesteading, and a slower, more self-sufficient and animal-focused lifestyle that’s better for me.
The funny part is, I only used the gloves once or twice before I stopped needing them, because getting my hands dirty was quicker and easier and I found out I loved the textures of leaves and petals and even fresh potting soil. I still don’t touch bugs with my bare hands, but when I see them I immediately try to identify them and learn about their function in the environment, and it’s easier to relate to them and value them then, even if they’re not ones I want to stay around. But even if I still used the gloves for every tiny task, that would be okay too, because Owly showed me it was okay to find a way that worked for me.
The shop was great, Andy’s talk was great, the signing was great, it was all great. Yes, it was mostly children and their parents there, but I don’t mind that. Owly is the very definition of an all-ages comic, and Andy’s talk was all about how professional artists erase and redraw and fix things as they ink and how kids can embrace that, super encouraging and talking to the kids on an equal level, which is amazing. During the signing portion I told Andy about how much I love Owly and how it’s the only wordless comic I understand because I’m autistic, and he was super nice. I didn’t say anything about gardening and wildlife to Andy Runton in our short conversation, because I hadn’t started yet, and I didn’t know if the gloves would work, and saying that a book inspired me when I had nothing to show for it yet would be meaningless, but I planned to send him pictures when I did have something to show for it, and I definitely had to share the story here because it’s so important to me.
So, if and when I’m able to send him this post: Thank you, Andy, so much, for your books. Here are before-and-after pictures of my pollinator patch. I’ve also seen a hawk and chipmunks and a mouse and so many squirrels and birds and bees and butterflies, and seeing them makes me feel like Owly. You’re doing wonderful work, and making a difference, and I’m so grateful. Signed, your fan forever, Hannah.