Somewhere in one of Carlos Castenda’s early books–we don’t remember which one–the Yaqui sorcerer don Juan advises never paying attention to crows. To do so is to acknowledge their bad sign, he warns. Lyanda Lynn Haupt, in her book Crow Planet, suggests just the opposite. A denizen of Seattle, Haupt says that observing crows, so common in most of our cities, is a way to acknowledge the presence of nature in the urban environment and a means of sharpening the observational skills so necessary to naturalists:
Crows can show us how certain wild, nonhuman animals live–what they need, how they speak, how they walk, and how they tip their heads in that special sideways manner to sip the slenderest bit of rainwater. They make us notice how many of them there are getting to be, to realize that as humans generate the conditions that allow crow populations to grow, many other wild species, birds in particular, are present in far fewer numbers and others are gone completely. Crows are wild beings in our midst, even as they point to the wildness that we cannot see and have lost. Their abundance holds a warning but also a promise: no matter how urban or suburban, how worldly-wise and wilderness-blind, no matter how drastically removed we as a culture and as individuals may have become from any sense of wilderness or wildness or the splendid exuberance of nature, we will nevertheless be thrust, however unwittingly, into the presence of native wild creature on a near-daily basis.
In other words, we should heed the crow’s omen. Haupt’s skill at observation–and not just at observing crows– makes her book worthy. Along the way, she discusses likely topics and not always, as the above example shows, with clarity and pith. Chapters on myth and story, walking, coexisting and helping (our direct intervention in crow life, as when fledglings fall from the nest) allow her to impart her own observations on both crow and human life.
In encouraging our attention be turned to the nature around us and finding our place in it, she makes us consider the common wisdom on the human relationship to the natural world. When she divulges that the ratio of crows to humans hasn’t changed in a thousand years (the crow population mushrooming right along with the human) she makes us part of nature, not separate of it.
Alert to the possibilities of observation after finishing her book, we found our own story with both symbol and omen.Taking care of friends’ cats at their house on the edge of town on Thanksgiving weekend, we spotted a deer in their garden, taking what it could pull from the snow when a magpie, brother to the crow (both of the Corvidae family and seemingly more numerous than crows in our mountain valley town), lit on his rump. The deer bucked and turned. Then another bird landed on it and the deer swirled to shoo it; then another, interrupting the deer’s forage until it tired of kicking and spinning put its head down and let the birds sit and work its haunch until it jumped as if bitten at the peck.
We’ve seen cowbirds on cattle and black birds pulling mites from a horse’s ear, but never magpies on deer, something of a holiday miracle we thought, the deer taking the last of the garden’s bounty, the magpies pulling insects from its hide, everyone feasting on this day of feasts. After the deer left, we went out to see what it was foraging and found blood, scarlet drops on the snow, and realized the birds were picking at a wound, possibly from an off-aim hunter. Or maybe the birds wre making a wound of their own. The blood drops led down to the creek and disappeared. As don Juan suggested, this omen might have better been avoided. Still, we learned something, something cold and harsh, and took it as a sign.–Cabbage Rabbit