Sunday, February 11, 2007

A stretch of river XXXIII: And the raven never flitting . . .

The colder the weather, the larger the flocks that the crows gather in.

This winter has been Wichita's coldest in the last couple of years.

Ergo: I have never seen so many crows in the entirety of my life as I have in downtown Wichita these past couple of months. Yesterday in the park at sunset, Scruffy and I saw a scene very much like the one pictured here (which, by the way, comes from this site), though the crows in the trees here were far more numerous, and thousands more were flying about (these crows, truth be told, do a good bit of flitting about). "Spies of Sauroman!" I thought as they swooped about, cawing cacophonously.

Here at the apartment complex, they have roosted in such numbers that, in one case, their weight broke off a sizable tree branch measuring about 3" across at the base. True, it looked to be a fairly rotten branch, but still.

They are so numerous that not even Scruffy can ignore them. And though crows aren't mentioned in this interview with the author of A Short History of the Shadow, after having read it I confess to finding my mind full of thoughts about how crows are rather disturbing psychically because they seem like shadows that have taken concrete form.

Mostly, though, Scruffy and I are distracted by crows because of the awful mess they are making of certain parts of "our" stretch of river.

I've been in chicken coops before, so I'm not unaware of the fact that it doesn't take a very long time for a large number of birds living in a small space to make a mess. But because I'd never before lived in an area where wild birds congregate in large numbers, I'd tended to laugh off accounts of their messes. "How bad could it be?" I'd think.

(Note to self: I need to stop saying "How bad could it be?" because the response to that question is, pretty regularly, "Much worse than you've imagined.")

Here's how bad: A couple of weeks ago, I noticed a car unluckily parked under a tree the crows had roosted in here at the complex whose windshield was almost completely covered with crow droppings. You can imagine the rest of the car.

The fact that I know they are crow droppings is another sign of how bad.

Still another sign, since this didn't occur last winter: Every day at sunset for about a month now, someone has been driving about the area in a truck, in the bed of which is mounted a small-muzzle cannon-like device. When he fires it, the crows nearby fly away, and crows roosting in distant trees also fly away as those first crows approach them. Off in that distance, the birds were so numerous that their massed bodies appeared like a slowly-undulating shimmering fabric. They go somewhere for a while, but by the mornings either they have returned or still others have arrived to roost in their places.

So, yeah: having very little choice but to walk through it, no matter the route Scruffy and I take, I'm more than a little clued in, now, to the messes crows can make. The one thing I'm grateful for is that crow droppings don't seem to have much of an odor, as far as I can tell. Scruffy, though, delights in lingering over whatever smell they happen to have, so much so that our morning walks are taking a couple of minutes longer than usual due to the sheer quantity of this particular olfactory bouquet.

I pointed out this fascination of Scruffy's to Mrs. M. last weekend as she and I walked along the river. She said, "For him, it's like he's taking a vacation." Vicariously, you see, via the droppings of these migratory birds.

(Remember this, by the way, the next time you're tempted to roll your eyes when someone asks you if you'd like to see pictures from their vacation.)

I laughed at first--after all, these birds migrate from faraway Texas and Oklahoma, not exactly places that leap to mind when one thinks of exotically-charged realms--but as I thought about her remark more, I ended up feeling a bit sad for Scruffy. Has our Stretch of River become so stale a place to our dog that his heart leaps at the first whiff of, of all things, things Oklahoman?? Well, no, I decided: the same old familiar smells still engage his attention, too. What is different is that the sheer quantity of the crow droppings just crowds out all those other smells.

For me, though, as I have suggested in various ways above, it's difficult to keep out thoughts of the night's Plutonian shore as I look at all these crows. I'm not mourning a lost Lenore, but these concluding lines from Poe's poem still are sitting, still are sitting in my mind as I think about crows and shadows:
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!
As Stoichita notes in the interview I linked to above, in Platonic thought shadows denote ignorance, the absence of knowledge, and are something to be traded in for something more substantial as soon as they are revealed to be shadows only; yet for the artist it is the shadow that helps us to preserve knowledge of an Other, however imperfectly. The weight of the Raven's shadow is so freighted with the speaker's new apparent knowledge of Lenore that his soul cannot shake it off. The shadow outweighs the bird itself by many many times.

And so it is with me as I look at all these crows hereabouts. I know they are just going about the business of being crows and intend no harm and certainly signify nothing beyond their irreducible crow-ness, but the weight of traditional associations, mixed in the half-light of sunrise or sunset and the overcast skies and cold air and accompanied by my own occasional melancholy this time of year--and more so than usual this year--is a difficult weight to ignore.

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Paul Decelles said...

Nice post. I have never thought of crows as being bad omens, but more of a trickster or vision quest companion.

Also when I was growing up in Massachusetts crows were not city birds but here there have become an annoyence in the Plaza area of KC. Whether they have really made a shift in habitat preference or they have just become more noticed I don't know.

Ariel said...

Very enjoyable post, John. On the abstract side, I'm reminded of how our human minds jump so quickly toward symbols and metaphor. The feeling that creation points beyond... haunts us.

On the more earthy side -

I need to stop saying "How bad could it be?" because the response to that question is, pretty regularly, "Much worse than you've imagined."

- that's an excellent piece of advice. :)

Gwynne said...

I've learned not to ask that question, "how bad could it be?" ;-)

I can't help but think of The Birds every time I see huge flocks of crows, such a strong influence that movie had on my psyche.

There's an exhibit up right now at the Strecker-Nelson gallery in Manhattan, featuring a retrospective of Margo Kren's work (a K-State art professor of many years). She, like many artists, uses crow imagery in some of her work.

Winston said...

Good piece of work! Some random thoughts:

* We have the crows in TN also, but the starling problem is far worse. They congregate by the millions like your crows, and seem to have a collective purpose for being: to bury all existing vehicles in starling poop.

* Scruffy's olfactory interest is not unusual. All our children of the canine and feline persuasions are wont to rub their heads and bodies in whatever pile of dung they happen across. Strange ritual. Stinky mess demanding immediate bath and deodorant application. Don't take them unleashed where horses and cows have trod.

* You write about crows at the same time I'm posting a title involving crows. Must be sipping the same juice.

Andrew Simone said...

This enjoyable post reminded me of an anecdote I recounted over at clusterflock.