John Lennon sang the famous line, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Perhaps with that in mind, writer Liz Smith used her keen skill for documenting those in-between moments that make life so special. Smith has allowed us to publish three of her recent essays (Compassion takes a holiday, Job satisfaction in the salsa aisle) in the May 9 - 15 issue of Real Change. We were so taken by her observations that we asked students in an advanced painting class at the Northwest College of Art and Design in Tacoma if they might be interested in illustrating these gems. Here are the results of that collaboration.
A few weeks ago I was watching “The Nature of Things,” the scientific program narrated by David Suzuki. This particular show was all about crows, which are found on every continent except Antarctica.
He went on to tell us all kinds of interesting facts about them. Crows live in groups, which is safer and helps the babies survive to adulthood. Crows are highly adaptable and will eat almost anything. They are also the only bird that uses tools. In a complicated experiment, it was shown that crows are able to pass critical information about their environment to their offspring. When they communicate with each other, they have an elaborate system of calls.
The one for my dog Nemo and me is two caws, which I think means “someone is approaching and they are not an enemy.” The crows in Magnolia are so used to us that they never dive bomb us in the spring, when they have their babies and become quite territorial. They build their nests high up in the treetops where we can’t reach them.
You could be 100 feet away, but if the parent thinks you are too close it will make you very unhappy. It’s not much fun when they’re three inches from the top of your head. They look much bigger than when they’re sitting quietly in a tree and don’t want to hurt you.
Unlike birds that live alone, when one crow does something, the rest join in, making them easy to observe. From time to time, the Thorndyke Avenue crows have bird wars with the Elliott Bay seagulls. The crows post sentries and send out advanced winged scouting parties to see where the enemy is and what they’re doing. All the birds issue battle cries, and then there’s a lot of strategic flying. It’s kind of like flag football: Both sides want to win, and nobody’s going to get hurt. When it’s over, the street goes quiet as each set of birds returns to its own territory in search of food.
Often in spring, a bald eagle flaps over from Discovery Park to do a baby raid. All of a sudden there will be a group scream from the entire tribe of crows, and they’ll chase and harass the eagle to try and recover their helpless baby.
Sometimes they succeed.
Like most animals, crows know when a bad storm is headed their way. One day last summer I was in the backyard pulling weeds. I looked up at the sound of many birds, and there was a fat stream of crows flying northeast. I guess they were headed for those tall trees by the Montlake Cut, but don’t know for sure.
They flew through the skies for almost 10 minutes, calling out in excitement to one another. It was elemental and dramatic. The storm blew in around 6:30 p.m. It was a proper storm, with everything you could want: lightning, thunder, hail, drenching rain, strong winds. I pictured the hundreds of crows huddled among the leafy branches of the row of trees. The trees are whipping about, the individual branches flexing like ribbons. The crows tighten their claws, and the hail glitters briefly on their glossy black plumage. Then the rain like buckets of ice-water hits.
The children edge closer to their parents, clamping their feathers to their bodies and wondering all the time if this gust of wind will be the one that strips them of this meager protection. The storm finally passes. Sooner or later the sun will shine, and the trees will be full of birds fluffing up their feathers to dry, and chattering to each other. Or should I say twittering?
A few weeks ago, I was in the backyard with my dog. He had gone down the stairs to my neighbor’s lawn. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flurry of activity. My dog had a big crow in his mouth.
“Drop it,” I commanded.
He dropped it, took a few steps back and sat, licking his lips. I went down to find the crow prostrate on the ground, taking shallow breaths.
It was dying.
I couldn’t leave it there for my neighbor’s two little daughters to find.
“Don’t you move,” I said to my dog.
I went and got a clean pillowcase. Grasping the bird through the cloth, I brought it up to my yard and laid him gently on the ground. He lifted his head and cawed twice, then his eyes went dim and he died.
I didn’t want to throw him in the trash. I felt he was a sentient being that deserved a respectful place in which to spend eternity. I dug a big hole. I rolled the crow up in the pillowcase — a shroud — and placed him in his grave, facing east, then filled in the gravesite and covered it with a rock to commemorate. We went in the house. I had a cup of coffee and fed the dog his supper.
The next spring, I noticed that my hostas, in the same place as the grave, were a darker, richer color and also were much more slug-resistant.
As for me, I now realize that we were being watched by the bird’s tribe of fellow crows. It was lucky for me that he didn’t scream when I picked him up, as I would then be hated for all time for inflicting harm on their friend.
Did they understand what was going on when I buried the crow? Did they see that I kept the bird from my dog, and that I was respectful to their friend? I will never know.
When I die, I would like to be reborn as a crow. I would join my tribe of fellow crows and they would recognize my spirit as the one who was kind to their dead friend and who used to feed them.
More essays from Liz Smith - Compassion takes a holiday, Job satisfaction in the salsa aisle Check out the full May 9 - 15 issue.
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