Crow: On Corvids, Myth, and Inter-Species Encounters

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downloadA couple of months ago I got a commission from my mother-in-common-law, as a gift for her sister. She asked me to make a small brooch: a crow. The specific bird was in reference to the book Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter’s cycle of poetry-come-novella in which a widower and his sons are accompanied/comforted/tormented in their loss by Crow coming to live with them.

Coincidentally, I read it when while on retreat on the isle of Tiree last autumn. I was also reading a collection of highland tales selected by Iain Crichton Smith, which features a ‘hoodie’ (hooded crow) in the stories and on the cover illustration. Grief is the Thing with Feathers’s Crow is just one in a long line of literary and mythological corvids (some of whichit is in direct reference to: the protagonist is a Ted Hughes scholar). I was thinking about crows of folklore, myth, fiction and poetry, as well as real crows, while making this black alpaca felt crow.

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The animals and plants I make are nearly always those I have experienced a significant md22143085379encounter with, akin to what the author of the Animist Jottings blog calls ‘showings’ (a more down-to-earth way of saying ‘revelations’, as in some translations of Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love). Here another serendipitous connection is the post on Hughes as ‘the shaman of the tribe’ (Note: I have complicated feelings about the appropriation of the word ‘animist, and ‘shaman’ even more so). Yet in reading Hughes’s Crow poems, I felt that his Crow of mythology was taking me away from the real crows that I see every day. Hundreds of them. Jackdaws, carrion crows, rooks and magpies are ubiquitous in this part of Scotland. The hillside road I see out of my study window, leading into the Campsie Fells and ‘the carpark in the sky’, is called—evocatively—the crow road. This, and my frustration with my third attempt Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (its cover a reference to Odin’s ravens), led me to abandon the crows of mythology for ‘real’ crows.

DSC_2133.JPGHaving now finished reading Esther Woolfson’s book Corvus: A Life with Birds (beautifully illustrated by Helen Macdonald) it occurs to me that it is just as much about the crows of human imagination as the ‘real’ crows of wildlife and ornithology. While including insights from her reading on corvids, the book’s self-described subject is the author’s life with birds: specifically the rook, magpie and carrion crow that lived in the family home after being rescued as chicks. These corvids do not live ‘normal’ lives in the wild, and the intricate practicalities of sharing literal house room with large, loud and intelligent birds is described in comedic detail.

download (1)The photograph accompanying the author bio on the dust jacket shows Woolfson holding the sixteen-year-old rook, Chicken, with an expression of joyful love on her (Woolfson’s) face that I recognise from my own interspecies relationship with my cairn terrier, Rowan. A delighted pride in this wilful, clever little person, in both their intractable otherness and the knowledge that the contours of their being have been shaped by their proximity to your own. (I raised Rowan from a puppy: I look at our rescue mongrel Rufus with just as much love and joy, but it’s tinged with the mystery—and possible tragedy—of his previous life).

Yet Chicken the rook is wild in a way that Rowan the dog is not—his ancestors for thousands of years have been formed for life with humans—and it’s the paradox of domestic intimacy with a really wild animal—of a different, non-mammalian class as well as species—that haunts Woolfson’s book. Another—related—paradox of the corvids’ otherness to humans is the points of similarity: their intelligence, perhaps even consciousness of self (magpies recognise themselves in the mirror) that we share with few others.

The Guardian review of Corvus (from when it was first published in 2008) complains about the amount that Woolfson (a writer, not an scientist) says ‘I don’t know why Chicken does this’ as belying an amateurish quality, but this seems to me to miss the point. Corvus is about the paradoxical tension between the vast amount of scientific knowledge that we have about birds (and the rest of this wild, other-than-human world), the contempt-breeding familiarity that we have by our proximity and their ubiquity, and their unfathomable mystery. We cannot know what they are thinking; we don’t know what they know, or how they know. We don’t know what it is like to be them. We don’t know what it feels like to fly.

crow1So it is crows’ otherness (including the mythological, foreboding Otherworldliness) as well as the points of contact—fellow intelligent persons with living parallel lives in shared urban and rural spaces—that I wanted to explore while making Crow. Those moments of encounter I have (quite different to the close-up relation that Woolfson has) fall into two groups. The black silhouettes at a short distance away, hopping on the ground, perched in a tree or on a rooftop, alert, sidewards gaze.

Or else in flight, passing above seemingly imagesoblivious to my presence, fanned wing tips spreading out.

The former is what I tried to capture in the commissioned crow brooch, which eschews detail for the stark shape of the outline.

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DSC_2170.JPGI wanted to avoid ‘Gothic’ without falling into ‘cute’, which is very difficult in wool and on this miniature scale. I suppose it does still incline towards the twee. Sober and sombre, but twee nevertheless. Serious twee.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers could also be described as ‘serious twee’: it somehow manages to depict crows in both their mythicopoetic and actual, wild guises (and perhaps does the same for grief).

While sitting outside writing this post, several corvids of various types have swooped above me, sometimes bearing bits of bread rolls or discarded chips in their beaks. My dogs stop them from landing, otherwise I know they’d be having a good go at extracting the food intended for smaller birds hanging up in feeders throughout the garden. It is the regular sight of a crow’s silhouette against the sky and the hills that I have tried to capture with this felt picture (on Harris tweed, using wool and alpaca undyed or dyed with woad, pineapple weed, rosebay willowherb and chervil):

I think it’s finished now, though I’m not sure. I’ve been wanting to try felting the views of the hillside since we moved here (six months now!) but this was the first time I’ve been brave enough to try it with my own dyed wool. I find the tweed a much more inspiring base than white merino pre-felt–a more welcoming home, if you will.

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