This summer I gave a couple of webinars on the topic of Crow Therapy and it’s something I think about almost every day as I try to understand why, after 15 years or so, I never tire of watching and taking photos of my local crows. Somehow I feel that the crows are a key to unlocking a big mystery and I’m still working on what it is. But here’s what I’ve got so far, starting with what I don’t think it is.
Every time I write the phrase Crow Therapy I worry that it sounds just a little exploitative — as if crows, like the rest of nature, are just there for our entertainment.As if it’s something that could be packaged in a fancy jar and marketed to a stressed consumer. *
I hope it’s a more reciprocal arrangement — one in which crows can regularly jolt me out of my default setting of seeing the human race as the centre of the universe.
A little daily crow therapy reminds me that other lives— every bit as ordinary and epic as mine — are being lived alongside mine. This realization brings greatjoy, but also a weight of responsibility and I feel a constant obligation to communicate both.
Joy, I feel, is something that we’re going to need more of in the coming years — and it needs to be a different joy than the kind with which we’ve soothed ourselves up to now. We need a more sustainable source of joy — less of the kind acquired via tropical holidays and the general accumulation of material things. I’ve convinced myself at different times in my life that I’m just one Tupperware container, one pair of pants, or that fabulous kitchen appliance away from my whole life falling into place, so I’m as much in need of convincing on this front as anyone else.**
For the last few days my Twitter feed has been a rushing river of terrifying news from my own province of BC — roads and rail lines washed away, entire towns flooded, homes and lives lost in a moment. In the midst of this harrowing torrent, an ad for Lincoln cars bobs up regularly like a jolly life buoy. The ad assures me that driving a Lincoln will provide great relaxation in the face of life’s little frustrations — things liking having odd socks disappear in the laundry and (in a final touch of unintentional irony) having my umbrella blown inside out by the wind in a storm.
I am 100% sure that a new Lincoln is NOT the answer to life’s daily trials,and definitely not the way to relieve the sadness of seeing life inevitably altered by climate change and coming to terms with the difficult changes that will be needed.
But I do know that spending half an hour watching crows will help.
Or watching rain drip onto a patch of moss. Or listening to the Northern Flickers chattering.
This is a sustainable joy, free, readily available to anyone, and consuming no natural resources … and it’s the kind of joy I’m trying to rely on more and more.
I do realize that I spend so much time exploring the meandering rabbit hole of my Crow Therapy theory, that I often fail to get around to posting anything about actual crows any more. I have a musing problem, I know …
Consequently I have a huge backlog of crow news and photos, so I will try to remedy this, starting tomorrow with a Marvin and Mavis update.
I guess the one thing that I was trying to say in this post was that I mean the idea of crow therapy (and my images) to be, not just a respite from general and/or climate stress, but also an inspiration and a focus for taking action to make things better — for ourselves, for crows, for nature as a whole.
*& ** I say these things, even as I hope you’ll purchase my images, calendars, bags etc, to enable me to continue thinking about, writing about and photographing crows, so I am aware of contradictions and I am far from having all the answers.
I hope you will enjoy my new Birds of Judgement series, if only because it makes you smile and because you may, or may not, see yourself or someone you know in those faces.
But if you’re interested in the events and thinking that went into these particular images, read on.
In a practical sense, I first started compiling a collection of angry looking birds when I was making my placard for the first of the 2019 Climate Action rallies initiated by young people rightfully worried about the future of the planet they are inheriting. The timing of the first rally in Vancouver coincided with the publishing of new research showing that bird populations across Canada and North America had declined by a whopping 29% (or 3 BILLION birds) in the preceding 50 years. Birds are, quite literally, the canaries in the coal mine of climate change and environmental degradation.
This brilliant cartoon by artist Dave Parkins, captures the issue perfectly.
I wanted to try and combine words and images in the same way, and give birds a small voice in the overall cry for Climate Action. Anyway, see below for my sign in action at one of the demonstrations.
The firm conviction that Nature is hierarchical — a pyramid with humanity at the top, and the rest of the creation below us, at our behest, is very ancient. This view of the world has led us, in many ways to to the ledge on which we currently find ourselves teetering. Apart from the looming issue of climate change, there is the small and humbling matter of how human society has been recently brought to its knees by a tiny microbe . . .
If all human project planning was preceded by the question “how would birds judge us for this?” I really think we’d all be much better off.
As I was searching through my many photographs for images of birds staring directly at the camera, I realized that I really do have a lot them.
Why is that? I wondered.
While it’s often thought that best bird photography practice is to have the bird look more “natural” by capturing them going about their business and gazing off to the side as if oblivious to human presence, I’m always happier to capture the fleeting connection (good or bad) between us.
Besides, they do say that the eyes are the window to to soul, bird or human, and we know how important these souls are in assigning importance to a species.
Looking at the birds boldly staring out of the frame reminds me of the of the late art critic, John Berger. I read a lot of his work in my 20’s and it changed my world view. He often challenge us to consider the “gaze” in art— the gaze of the artist, the gaze of the subject and the gaze of the viewer. In other words, who’s looking at who, and how, and why?
He posed a lot of other questions too, but I often ask myself why I’m looking at birds the way I do, and why I take the kind of photographs I do.
Well, maybe not often.
Every image is a sight which has been recreated or reproduced. It is an appearance, or a set of appearances, which has been detached from the place and time in which it first made its appearance and preserved — for a few moments or a few centuries. Every image embodies a way of seeing.
From Ways of Seeing by John Berger
I take photographs of birds, basically, because I feel a real connection with them and I want to try and convey that to the viewer in the hope that they can feel it too.
Sometimes it’s beauty that makes the connection. Sometimes it’s laughter.
And sometimes it’s just those eyes, staring from one soul to into another.
And if you do read into this series that birds are judging us … they probably are.
Since September, I’ve done a lot of writing. Probably more writing than I’ve done since my long ago thesis on Anglo-Saxon poetry.
I’ve been writing letters … so many letters … to Vancouver City Council and staff.
They’ve been rather boring letters, full of carefully researched references to building permits, footnotes and traffic management plans. Petition wording, schematic views and the endless argument for community consultation.
Google map view of Notre Dame School. and surrounding area. Green = proposed artificial turf stadium: Red = new parking lot
In summary, the issue is this: In 2004-5 Notre Dame School (located at the end of our street) revealed plans for a new campus, including a sports stadium and the removal of perimeter trees. Local residents were relatively happy about the new buildings, but very much opposed to the sports stadium and tree removal. We rallied to state our opposition and in 2006 a compromise was reached when the school agreed to build a grass practice field instead of the stadium, and to keep the trees. In 2008 they received a building permit for this. The buildings were finished a few years ago, but the sports field construction did not start. In September we found out, purely by accident, that, in January of this year, the school had submitted a request for a minor amendment to the 2008 building permit to the City of Vancouver. The amendment would allow a sunken, full-sized artificial turf games field with stadium seating, and necessitate the removal of the trees on the west side of the site. Neither the school nor the City informed the local community of this change. We have been writing letters asking that this change not be allowed as a minor amendment, but require a new building permit, which would then create the opportunity for community input. Two months in, and we haven’t received any meaningful response from the City, the school, or the Archdiocese which overlooks the school.
Most of my official stadium-related correspondence with City Hall has centred on classic topics like street safety, traffic, parking and noise. All valid and very real concerns for our neighbourhood.
But now I’m taking some time to write an open letter straight from the heart on an even bigger subject — the one that really keeps me awake at night.
Dear City of Vancouver,
Welcome new mayor and council members. You are a politically diverse group and I hope you’ll be creative and collaborative in your decision making, and will do the City of Vancouver proud over the next few years.
This morning I was listening to the radio and heard an interview with someone from the University of BC Forestry Department talking about a project called Citizen Cool Kits — an initiative encouraging neighbourhoods to come together and hatch ideas to lower their carbon footprint — all in a community-based effort to combat climate change. An important aspect of this is the maintenance and enhancement of the “urban forest”.
It’s a great idea, right? A positive approach to climate change challenges, very suited to a city that prides itself on being green and progressive.
But then I think about the school’s stadium plan, which the City seems poised to endorse. It could hardly be any more contrary to the idea of being collaborative, or climate and environment friendly.
What we have currently at Notre Dame School, from a neighbourhood point of view, are some quite spiffy looking new buildings, a rutted parking lot, a pile of rubble that has waist high grass has grown over it, and rows of tall Lombardy poplar trees on the north, east and west sides of the campus. It’s not exactly a beautiful site (or sight) but the trees do form a visual curtain and create a towering habitat for many bird species, from ravens to bushtits.
In an area woefully under-served by parks or green space of any kind, those trees have been, for as long as I’ve lived here (27 years) served as a low footprint vertical park space. Green poster-children for densification. When there aren’t many leaves, the stand of poplars is like a giant shadow puppet theatre, starring a huge and varied cast of birds and animals.
And this year, in April, Mountain Bluebirds – yes, Mountain Bluebirds! – spent a weekend at the school feasting on the smorgasbord of bugs living in the overgrown grass on the rubble pile before continuing on their journey north.
Male Mountain Bluebird on the chainlink fence at Notre Dame School.
Literally, a bluebird of happiness on a shoulder
A raven often visits the dilapidated parts of the school campus, resting on the parking lot fence or perching in the poplar branches, peacefully ignoring the inevitable crow harassment. His call cuts through the urban sounds of traffic and construction noise like a clear bell reminding us of the mountains and forests just a few miles away.
Environmentally, it’s alive. The trees and the grassy wasteland are doing their bit to capture carbon and host living things.
True, it’s not particularly attractive at the moment, and it’s certainly not doing the students at the school much good as they run around the school on the sidewalk or up to the local park for exercise and sports practice.
It would be wonderful to see them have an attractive sports field, as laid out in the 2008 permit.
Sports are an important part of the school curriculum, but surely there are other things that children need to experience and learn in school. Environmental studies? Ethics? Poetry? At my high school I loved the treed area by the grass hockey field and my best friend and I would read aloud to each other there at lunch breaks. Once a nerd, always a nerd.
If the school built a grass practice field as they agreed, it would save them millions of dollars over the cost of a fancy stadium. The trees could be saved and some of the savings could go into creating a border of native shrubs and grasses, encouraging the Mountain Bluebirds to visit every year. More fabulous educational possibilities – tracking the migratory path of the bluebird, exploring the challenges that climate change and human activity are posing for them on their journey, researching what could be added to the school grounds to make it an even more inviting stop over spot for them.
UBC’s Citizen Cool Kit also offers a great potential project for students to explore how the school could make their grounds as green as possible. They could map where Hastings Creek runs under the school and imagine the land they’re standing on as it was a hundred years ago. Who lived there? What did it look like? Ecology class could lead field trips on their very own campus!
If they go ahead with the sunken, artificial turf stadium, none of this will be possible.
First, the poplar trees will be doomed because the sunken field will run right up to the property line, and the root damage caused by such close proximity to a steep drop would make them unstable. City bylaws require that other trees replace those removed, but what tree of any size could grow atop an 8 foot retaining wall?
And don’t get me started on artificial turf! The City of Vancouver seems to love the stuff at the moment, especially as an “easy” answer for low maintenance sports facilities.
I covered a lot of my concerns about artificial turf in my early blog post, the cheerily titled Environmental Dead Zone — so I’ll just refer you to that. Be sure to check out the links at the bottom of the post for even more reading.
Urban nature is pretty tough, but it’s far from invincible. It needs some help in the form of creative thinking by planners, developers and politicians to thrive.
If the stadium plan goes ahead, I fear that there will far less birdsong in the neighbourhood. An absence of ravens, certainly no mountain bluebirds.
I imagine the crows will find reasons to stick around, if only to steal fast food wrappers dropped by stadium attendees and to laugh at our human folly.
Not literally, of course. Crow hugging is fraught with peril at the best of times, but especially in spring when nesting season has them a bit tense.
Please, do not hug me.
But I do suggest that you give the crow (or pick your favourite bird, plant, patch of moss or mollusk) a special thought today.
It’s Earth Day so, ideally, we should be extending our love to the entire planet.
But that’s a hard thing to do, particularly when what the planet needs from us right now is massive change —change that is going to be really tough for us to make.
The majority of the world’s population now lives in cities, where we often feel very cut off from what we think of as Nature.
So, given that most of us are urbanites these days, how are we to develop the necessary connection with nature in order to care enough to make change and move towards saving the planet?
As my dear mother used to say, “wherever you go, there you are.”
And where you are now, even if it’s in the heart of the city, has tenacious bits of nature thriving in it.
It just takes a slight focus shift to start becoming aware of, and amazed by it.
This crow is tending a nest at Hornby and Robson in the heart of downtown Vancouver, right by the Art Gallery. A friend who works at the gallery told me that it’s probably the same pair who nested there last year and caused a traffic kerfuffle when one of their babies flew into the back of someone’s convertible just outside of Café Artigiano.
Collecting nest furnishings in the heart of downtown Vancouver.
Often the thing you tend to notice first, just because of its size and boldness, is a crow.
I find that the crow is your gateway bird, leading to the habit of noticing the bird world as a whole. Once you’ve started to look up to see what the crows are up to, you can’t help but start to notice the robins, sparrows, bushtits, chickadees and hawks going about their more subtle, but equally fascinating, avian business.
And noticing birds is, in turn, a gateway to the wonder of nature in general.
The task of saving the earth often seems far too big and therefore hopeless.
The tools we need this Earth Day are empathy and hope.
Someone who embodies both of these qualities is 87 year old Jean Vanier, who created L’Arche — a unique and loving community for mentally disable adults. Here are some of his thoughts on birds, as told to columnist and writer, Ian Brown in a Globe and Mail interview.
Hmmm, something to think about …
Some notes on the author’s quoted in this blog post:
John Marzluff’s Wikipedia page says this:
“John Marzluff is a professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington and author of In the Company of Crowsand Ravens, Gifts of the Crow, and Welcome to Subirdia. His lab once banded crows with a Dick Cheney mask.”
— so you know he’d be fun guy to know! Subirdia is his most recent book about the amazing adaptability of birds, their importance, and what we can do to help them survive in our urbanized world.
I first discovered Seattle author Lyanda Lynn Haupt when I picked up a copy of Crow Planetseveral years ago. It remains one of my favourite books, combining science, poetry and humour in a way that I could read all day. She’s also written a wonderful book on city wildlife in general (The Urban Bestiary) and I look forward to her next one on the subject of starlings. And she has a blog: The Tangled Nest.
Colin Tudge is a British biologist and entertaining author, The Bird is only one of many books he’s written. I next want to read his book The Secret Life of Trees.
You can read more about the life and work of Jean Vanier on his website.
I always love to see crows, but I must admit I’m always a bit sad to see them typecast as harbingers of death and all things spooky, especially at Halloween.
I was torn between excitement at seeing a crow on a book of stamps I just bought at the post office, and disappointment that they were supposed to be “haunted”.
My new “red sky crow” pendant would seem, at first blush, to be part of the problem.
But, I’d like people who wear it to know the actual story behind the image. It’s a story that paints a truer picture of people being far, far scarier than crows.
This summer in Vancouver was rather frightening. I wrote something about it in my early blog, Crowpocalypse 2015.
In some ways it was great — day after day of dry sunny weather. Great for the beach and outdoor activities. But it was a brutal summer too, with the drought making the usual summer wildfire season much more severe. Lack of water made it a disastrous summer for wildlife of all kinds.
During the hottest part of the summer I was in the habit of getting up early to walk and work before it got too warm. In July there were so many forest fires in the surrounding areas that Vancouver was blanketed in smoke for several days. At dawn things looked particularly apocryphal when the sun rose, an eerie red ball on the horizon.
Smokey the Crow
So, this is where the Red Sky Crow came from. It’s not a spooky Halloween Crow at all. In fact it’s a “wake up people and smell the climate-change coffee” sort of crow.
Red Dawn Crow
It just so happens that the colours of the image and pendant are perfect for Halloween and fall – but if you do wear it, or see someone else wearing it — remember (and share) the real scary story behind it.
I suppose everyone has their own opinion of crows. I think of them as beautiful, wise, powerful, agile, funny, social and symbolic, but never spooky.
And don’t forget, tomorrow …
If you’d like to celebrate the beauty and intelligence of crows all through 2016, check out my City Crow calendar.