Monday, September 17, 2012


This morning’s minion I woke to was a controversy of crows, a family squabble, perhaps, over whose early-bird worms these were, or maybe just a diva’s rendition of a mating aria from their repertoire of crow-caw. It had the decibels sufficient to pull me from REM-sleep and was probably screechy enough to scare the bejesus out of hummingbirds and chicks in unguarded nests.

Crows seem to be following me lately, on the page, not in the Hitchcockian sense. They are darkening the stanzas of poems and paragraphs of novels. Ever since Poe’s raven (and likely before that) members of the crow family have been identified with morbidity and worse.
Nevermore, the raven famously proclaimed driving the rejected lover into madness. Crows have become the number one metaphor for menace. Van Gogh dotted his canvas with them in his familiar, Wheatfield With Crows.

Enough! Crows have been maligned far too long. Look at their extended family. Jackdaws, magpies, jays and rooks are cousins; some fine feathers there. Nutcrackers also belong in that aviary and look what Tchaikovsky did for them. Crows are among the smartest of creatures scoring high on the non-human SAT exams. It could be crow-propaganda but they even show a degree of self-awareness in a mirror-test; some of us have never gotten beyond this stage.
If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows; so said Henry Ward Beecher. Crows are also credited with fashioning their own tools; that’s more than I could boast.

They are classified as oscine passerine, which is another way of saying songbirds that perch. Can they help it if their song makes me long for elevator music?

There is some question whether Vincent saw them as foretelling his demise. He was a reader of Jules Michelot who regarded crows with a kind of reverence, calling attention to their curiosity, sagacity and prudence. In letters to his brother Theo, Van Gogh also noted the birds as a symbol of resurrection. Among the Northwest Coast Indians ravens are attributed with bringing light to the world in their creation myth. In Native American
culture, crows have been endowed with human attributes. In traditional tribal societies crows and shamans are revered as tricksters, their spirits interwoven with masks and their power passed along. 

We humans aren’t very nice; we even assign the name,
crow’s feet, to our facial wrinkles. Crows would never do that to us. Many a plastic surgeon has taken a cruise on the money made from smoothing those pleats around our eyes, Americans particularly. In Italy they are called hen’s feet and in France they are goose’s feet. But the Danes say it best; they call them, smiling wrinkles, signifying a long life of living and laughing.

On the other hand we call hand-writing like mine,
chicken scratch, while Denmark uses the term, kragetaeer, or crow’s toes. We just can’t resist bad-mouthing those black birds. I’m feeling you, crow, evermore.

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