There’s a lot (a lot!) of pressure on the gazing bowl this year.
Unlike tea leaves, the assorted bits of foliage in the gazing bowl confer no psychic abilities upon the reader — well, not this one, anyway.
Handy as that would be. Especially this year.
While the future remains stubbornly hidden, time spent peering into its depths does unveil some ephemeral truths.
Pondering the ever-changing patterns gives me a different way to see the world, if only for a few moments.
This year, I’ve been finding in it metaphors for history and ideologies — one layer affecting another —murkiness in the complexity —shadows and light — one thing reflecting another.
But then, the bowl (and everything else) depends upon Nature — and I hope we all remember that in the coming hours, days, months and years, and steer our history and ideology to reflect that truth.
Geordie, who seems to think that my prognostication receptacle is actually his water bowl, has lately been hinting that the murkiness I am seeing in it is less metaphorical, and more a question of diminished drinkability.
Begging his indulgence, I think I’ll leave it for one more day and then tip it out and fill it with clean, fresh water.
The subject of our chat was my City Crow calendar in particular, and “crow therapy” in general.
I must admit that when I first coined the phrase “crow therapy” for city dwellers, I half meant it as a joke.
After all, there are already so many cures from our mental and spiritual ailments these days — ranging from the snake oil variety, to the truly helpful.
As I scroll through my social media feed and my blood pressure inevitably begins to rise — there it is — the ad for “Calm” (apparently the best-selling app of the year) floating serenely down the page. It seems to actually know which posts are going to aggravate me most so that it can make a timely and soothing appearance.
There is the lovely forest bathing therapy, and that is generally free – all you need is some forest in which to wander. That, and hiking in the mountains looking for ravens, are two of my favourite calming “apps.” Unfortunately, I have neither forest nor mountain on my doorstep, so those types of respite take a bit of time and planning.
Given how fraught our daily lives can be, we could all take to wandering the mountain trails and forest pathways on a full-time basis, having bid farewell to our jobs and families.
Or, we could look for a stress-busting technique that’s more readily at hand.
There are always those handy phone apps, of course. But it seems counter productive to spend yet more time looking at screens in order to reduce the tension often brought about by too much time immersed in that world to begin with.
What we need is a window OUT of our normal world, even for if it’s just for a few minutes.
Therefore, I present to you: Crow Therapy — 100% free, and readily available!
A crow knows what’s it like to be struggling to make it in the big city.
A crow isn’t perfect.
They don’t expect you to be either.
So what are you waiting for?
A Crow Therapist, or two, are likely waiting for you outside right now.
Most days really. And there are no spare minutes to go swanning off after bluebirds.
There are days that are just endless paper jamming — waiting on hold — stuck in traffic — number crunching — brain numbing — is it over yet? — sorts of days.
At these times you need crows. And rust. And weeds growing in cracks in the asphalt.
The beauty of crows is …
Ah well, there are so many things that are beautiful about crows …
OK, let’s just say that one of the great things about crows is that, here in Vancouver at least, there is almost always one handy to distract you for a moment.
Even when you’re stuck in traffic, waiting for that freight train to budge, or the log jam of cars to clear, you can almost always catch a glimpse of a crow or two doing something interesting and/or silly within view. The trick is not to get too interested so you miss when the traffic starts to move.
Sometimes a crow in the right light can be the perfect substitute for a Mountain Bluebird — Vancouver’s very own bluebird of happiness.
No matter how rushed and boring a day, there’s usually at least time for a ten minute walk outside.
And, if you look a little bit sideways, put your eyes out of focus a little, you can find beautiful things almost anywhere.
“There are things you can’t reach. But you can reach out to them, and all day long.
I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around as though with your arms open.”
From — Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End? –by Mary Oliver
Smithrite with awesome graffiti, including (in elegant script) the word “knit.”
Flowering quince in evening light against a the side of peeling set of concrete stairs.
If you can’t get to the woods, sometimes a miniature horsetail forest will do.
Of course, there are days much worse than the paper jam days.
There are days when you’re in pain. Days when you receive very bad news.
Days when you feel as if you are nothing more than a hollow conduit for an endless river of sadness.
I’ve had days like those too, and ordinary, or even extraordinary, beauty alone would not do the trick.
But it’s always been there, part of the healing recipe of family, friends, doctors, medicine, therapy and time.
Crows, rust, weeds, poetry, clouds, trees, the sound of wind, bird calls, snippets of graffiti, lichen, peeling paint, the occasional raven or mountain bluebird — they all seem like the dots and dashes of a distant morse code message.
The meaning is alway just out of reach, but it gives purpose to each day to attempt the translation.
Sometimes, on my walks, I like to play a little game.
I call it Alleyway to Art Gallery.
Something catches my eye — a piece of rust, moss on a worn fence, a shattered windshield, even some crumpled paper floating in the gutter.
At that moment, in that light, it is astonishing.
That’s how the game begins.
Part two is imagining that the little piece of beauty has been magically transported from the gutter to a pristine white gallery.
The lighting and ambience are perfect. The exhibited piece is HUGE. Twenty feet high.
Perhaps sparkling wine is being served …
The colours, the textures! It’s stunning.
In some ways, the game can be a little depressing since the imaginary exhibit is far more gorgeous and spontaneous than anything I’m likely to create.
But, therein lies the fun of it. It’s an inspiration. Something to aspire to.
Plus, before you know it, I’ve been on a little fantasy VAG, MoMA, or Tate Modern trip during the course of a dog walk.
It’s my little secret. Until it wears away, blows away, or the light changes, it’s part of my own private collection.
The pictures in this blog are of a treasure I found in a local alleyway around this time last year.
As you can see in the photo above, the alleyway in question did not seem, at first glance, to hold a lot of promise. I can’t remember how exactly I came to notice it. Perhaps Geordie wanted to pee on it.
It was a large painting, done on some sort of wood veneer with thick, swirling sweeps of paint. Hard to say if was acrylic or oil paint, or what the original subject was.
I’m not sure how long it had been languishing in they alley when I found it, but much of the paint had worn off and the wooden base had started to de-laminate. Moss was beginning to colonize parts of the wood, and windy weather had caused brilliant fall leaves to pile up in front of it.
One or two other leaves had become plastered to the old painting and random, yet somehow perfect, intervals.
It was one of those overcast, damp days where the sky is a dull grey, but all terrestrial colours seem extra bright to compensate. Flecks of blue left in the painting, and the touches of red in the autumn leaves, seemed to add little jolts of electricity to the overall composition.
I visited my little secret art show several times over the next few weeks, until it disappeared under the winter snow.
I considered all the the elements that went into the accidental “installation”.
The painter and their original inspiration.
The decisions and/or circumstances that led to the painting being abandoned in the alley.
The wind, the leaves, the moss, the light.
My decision to walk that way that day.
Geordie’s sudden need to pee.
Somehow this little game brings me much joy.
More and more I’m trying to find ways to steer my mind onto calmer pathways and thinking about beauty and serendipity makes a welcome change from too much news or the never-ending “to-do” list.
I recommend it.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like, The Gift.
It was just like a door-crasher sale for crows, with home furnishings 50% off.
Like a gang of bargain bin foragers, they created an explosion of tugging, flapping, snapping, inspecting and discarding. Reject twigs littered the sidewalk. In spite of the massive effort involved in finally getting a stick free, the crows would often cast a critical look at their prize and dump it. Perhaps they decided it was going to mess up the feng shui, or didn’t quite match the colour scheme — whatever — it wasn’t up to snuff so time to head back into find the “right” one. Even if a twig was worth flying off with, it would often be taken to a rooftop for some further DIY modification before being deemed nest-worthy.
These photos are of Eric and Clara. I know it’s them because of where they’re building their nest. That half block has been “theirs” for as long as I’ve been watching them — at least four years.
Eric finally flies off with a “perfect” twig.
Eric and Clara’s nest, way up in the poplars.
Because it’s been such a delayed spring here in Vancouver, crows are building their nests before the trees are leafed out enough to camouflage them. I can actually watch Eric and Clara working on the nest from my living room window at the moment. I only hope the local bald eagles and racoons aren’t also making notes!
There was a definite joie de vivre in the air last Friday. Not only were the blossoms out (three weeks late) but it was also dry and sunny for the whole day.
In between battling to acquire furniture, the crows would spend a bit of time just relaxing in their newly-pink world, and enjoying the novelty of the twin phenomena of sun and “not rain.”
Clara in the pink.
The blossoms were still there the next day, but the weather took a severe U-turn. There was very little twig collecting going on in the pouring rain. Trying to shake a twig loose from the soaking trees would have resulted in near drowning. And the wind!
I think this juvenile crow’s look spoke for many of us when the rain started up again.
Nest Construction Notes
Last year, after nesting season was over, I found this fallen crow’s nest. I brought it home to photograph its architectural features — a perfect embodiment of urban and nature. The main form was constructed from sturdy twigs, grass and moss, then reinforced with human detritus — old zap straps and twine. A bit of packing fluff for a luxurious finishing touch.
This wasn’t supposed to be a blog-writing day, but I feel I have some “stop press” news that must be shared, along with photographic evidence.
I almost hesitate to share this wild idea, but I think there is a small chance that … dare I even speak the thought? … spring might have arrived.
I hasn’t just been the rain.
So. Much. Rain.
It’s also been cold. Brr. We have lived on the same street for 25 years now. Normally at this time of year, it’s a candy-floss fiesta of pink blossoms. This year, it looks like this.
But yesterday, the rain stopped. The sun came out.
It’s actually mild enough to stop and stand in the garden and watch what’s happening.
These are a few of the amazing things I saw going on in the garden in just one hour this morning.
Chickadee calling his heart out in the snowbell tree
One of my favourite hellebores.
A fox sparrow taking a breather on the garden fence.
A crow with nesting on his mind. I saw George with a twig in his broken beak earlier this week.
Norther Flicker on the peak of our roof – taking a short break from hammering on the metal chimney.
The daphne bush that was crushed with snow all winter has survived!
Buds starting on the coral bark maple. Oh, and a crow.
Song sparrow in the Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick (aka Corkscrew Hazel).
A bushtit at the feeder. Only one pair came – not the usual “suet-feeder clogging” crowd. A sure sign that they’re getting ready to nest. And one of them left the garden with some moss in it’s beak.
Goldfinch stopping at the bird bath for a little paddle.
I’m sure the birds have known it’s spring for weeks now, in spite of the weather. They’ve got important business to be dealing with, rain or no rain.
I’ve just been a bit slow on the uptake, what with the amount of time and effort needed to struggle into full rain gear and wellies for every excursion — and then the overwhelming desire to get back inside as soon as humanly possible.
Now that it’s stopped raining for five minutes, I strongly suggest spending a few minutes outside. Just drink it all in and catch up with the birds.
Pardon the rather overwrought title, but it’s true; an elementary school “Nature Collection” assignment changed my life.
It was also, at the age of 7, my first bitter taste of academic failure.
On the face of it, it was a rather fun assignment — go out into nature and make a collection of pods, seed and leaves from a variety of trees.
The one tiny problem was the complete lack of such trees anywhere near where I lived.
Most of my fellow pupils at Saint Andrew’s school, located in the middle of an English industrial city (Newcastle upon Tyne), probably shared my problem. Some of them may have lived within reach of Exhibition Park or the Town Moor, but I lived down on the Quayside. We had the Tyne river, docks, ancient buildings — but no sycamores, oaks or hazel trees for miles.
The Quayside in more recent years (2010). Our family’s flat used to be the area circled in red to the left of the photo. I was much more acquainted with the exact girder pattern of the Tyne Bridge just above my bedroom window than I was with the mysteries of trees.
Now, don’t misunderstand me, I loved growing up down there. In spite of the complete lack of any family-oriented facilities (including trees), it was a truly epic place for childhood adventure.
The High Level Bridge viewed from a part of the old walls where we liked to play. There are a few small trees growing there now, but it was mostly just weeds back in the 50’s and 60’s.
There were a handful of kids in the neighbourhood — my little brother and I, the two sons of the pub owner, and the two daughters of another bank caretaker.
We were “free range” and felt we owned the city.
The ancient city walls were our forts and houses, and many games were staged in the abandoned graveyard of All Saints Church.
All Saints Church had no congregation so it was left to turn into an overgrown adventure playground. Because the church itself was a protected historic building it was never demolished.
It didn’t occur to me for a moment that we were nature-deprived. There were, after all, plentiful weeds on the old World War II bomb-sites with which to create spectacular bouquets.
One of my favourite childhood bouquet ingredients. It’s called fireweed here in Canada, but in the UK it has the more poetic name “Rosebay WIllowherb.”
But the dreaded Nature Collection project was real eye opener. I’d never actually seen the sycamore trees it spoke of, with their clever little helicopter seedpods. I certainly had idea where to go and collect samples. My mum, who didn’t drive and had my little brother to look after, couldn’t really help, other that getting some books out of the library for me.
In the end I just handed in some pictures of the items we were supposed to collect. It felt like a massive failure.
Looking back, I feel some lingering annoyance that we were set an assignment so bound to fail. It was a classic curriculum vs real life mismatch.
On the other hand, it was a great gift. I feel as if I’ve been diligently working on that darn assignment ever since.
When I moved to other, greener parts of the world, I pressed all kinds of leaves and flowers in books. Sometimes I composed pictures of with the dried results and sent them to my mum back in Newcastle. I recently came across a few ancient specimens in my massive copy of Wild Flowers of the Pacific Northwest.
I still feel a thrill, fifty plus years later, every time I come across any new or particularly beautiful little specimen of leaf, seed, fungus, nest or moss.
Or crow, come to that. We only saw pigeons and gulls down on the Quayside.
I’m always especially thrilled to see the ways in which nature and the city intersect
I love to see a weed forcing it’s way through asphalt, or human rubbish selected by birds to furnish their nests.
I found this fallen and abandoned bushtit nest and “collected” it earlier this year.
Detail of the bushtit nest. Construction materials include moss, spider webs (for strength and stretch), leaves, grass and fragments of man-made fibres.
This crow’s nest I found on the ground recently is a great town bird/country bird collaboration – an ingenious mix of twigs, moss, twine, packing fluff and zap straps.
So, every piece of moss or rust, every bird I see; every lovely fallen leaf that catches my eye; it’s all being mentally added to the ongoing “Nature Collection” project.
Sometimes a little dip into nature does the trick, but sometimes, nothing short of full woodland immersion is going to work.
Most days my spirits can be revived by a quick dog walk round the block, appreciating the changing leaves, a bit of moss here and there. The crows, of course.
Last week though — I’m not sure it was a touch of flu, too much turkey at Thanksgiving, or watching the second US presidential debate — but I was running on my last cylinder.
Although I felt mostly like sleeping, we went for a walk around Lynn Headwaters Park.
Because fierce rain and windstorms were predicted, last Wednesday seemed bathed in a golden light. It was a perfect fall day, all the more special for the impending weather doom and gloom.
Also, I hadn’t been in the woods for several weeks due to a series of unfortunate lower leg events. I hadn’t realized how much I missed it.
Three hours felt like the equivalent of a week’s magical vacation.
Coincidentally, ever since then I’ve been seeing the Japanese practice of “Forest Bathing” or “Shinrin-Yoku” popping up on my social media, and even in today’s local paper. If you Google the term “forest bathing” you’ll see that everyone from The Globe and Mail to Oprah is talking about it.
It seems that something we’ve always known intuitively is backed up by science. A walk in the woods is good for your health — physical and mental. No need to work up a sweat either. It’s simply being in the presence of trees that provides the benefit.
So, if you can, get out and find some trees to bathe with right now.
If you can’t fit it into your schedule immediately, I hope you’ll enjoy these photos.
Think of it as just a preview of your own real woodland walk, coming soon.
Should you ever doubt the calming effect of a woodland walk, compare Geordie’s before and after pics.
BEFORE – in the car on the way to the park. Geordie always suffers a bit of car-ride anxiety, worrying perhaps that we’ve changed our mind and are returning him to the shelter in California whence he came.
Crows and ravens are generally (and understandably) described as birds with black plumage. It is their darkness that allows them to grace the sky with such striking calligraphy.
Formal sentences composed on wires; more fluid, improvisational characters when taking to the air.
But it’s so much more complicated, and beautiful, than that.
Crow and raven feathers are highly iridescent. They collect and reflect the light and the colour of the world around them. Gunmetal storm clouds, cornflower blue summer skies, the fire of the rising or setting sun — all paint their feathers with fleeting shades of indigo, lavender, copper and gold.
Dawn crow, gilded
George, with his eye on the sky … and the sky reflected in his feathers
Crow takes flight from birdbath
These reflected shades are often featured in my photography and jewellery, so I think of, and marvel at, corvid hues often.
Sometimes I wonder, idly, about how many colours you could actually find in a crow or a raven’s feathers.
Imagine my surprise when a computer glitch answered my question.
I recently downloaded a batch of photos taken of a crow (Vera) in my garden. I use software called Bridge to organize my images. It allows me to see the images from my camera in thumbnail size, like an old fashioned contact sheet. It’s handy to see at a glance what’s there and do a quick edit.
I was amazed to see that some of the Vera images had been randomly translated by Bridge into, part normal photo, and part digital sampling of the colours in the photo.
Vera’s plumage of many colours
At a glance, I see lavender, lilac, violet, mauve, periwinkle, indigo, charcoal, forest green, sand, pearl, slate — hardly any black, in fact.
It was an ephemeral glitch, but I managed to “capture” a couple of versions.
Quasi-scientific proof that a crow is not just a black bird.