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.
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.
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 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.
I would describe George’s 2015 as “catastrophic”. Still, there are lessons to be learned from his persistence.
His year has been so awful, it’s taken me a while to prepare myself to tell the story, and look again at some of the images.
George appeared in my garden about midway through the long, hot, dry summer last year. He was waiting for me one day when I came out of the studio, resting on a branch and looking at me as if we were already well acquainted. It turned out that George had a family — a mate (Mabel) and one fledgling.
The baby crow at first seemed like the average disheveled juvenile, doted upon my both of his parents. But as the summer continued, it became clear that all was not well with Junior. Lumps appeared on his face and then on his feet. He had avian pox, which is often fatal and very contagious to other birds of many species.
I had a crisis of conscience. Fearing for the health of all the other birds that come to my garden, I considered ignoring George’s pleading looks so that the family might start to seek food elsewhere and leave the area. Easier said than done.
Waiting for me outside the studio. Hard to resist.
After a couple of miserable days of looking at George’s expectant face through the studio window, I moved to plan B. This consisted of a rather rigorous schedule of feeding George and family at only one spot on the deck and then, after their visit, immediately cleaning the area with bleach and rinsing thoroughly. I also bleached the birdbath daily, and emptied and cleaned all the other bird feeders every few days. I went from crazy crow lady, to crazy bleach lady!
Of course, when I noticed the sick baby and family perched on the hydro wires all over the neighbourhood, I realized that there was a limit to what I could do in the sterilization department.
By the end of the summer, George and Mabel looked completely worn out. All Vancouver wildlife had a tough time dealing with the drought, and many birds started molting early in the summer. George looked thoroughly bedraggled by the time new feathers started to come in for the fall.
Finally, in early fall, his new feathers came in and he looked much more handsome. More importantly, he and Mabel showed no sign of having developed avian pox symptoms.
George in new winter feather finery.
A little more on Mabel: she’s a lot more reluctant to get close to me than George. A problem with her right eye probably causes some vision impairment, naturally making her more cautious. At times the eye is completely closed and, at other times, it looks quite normal. Mostly it doesn’t seem to cause her great problems.
In this photo you can see Mabel’s eye problem.
Moments later, Mabel’s right eye looks just fine, as she deftly juggles some peanuts.
Sadly, the baby crow grew sicker, although both parents continued to feed and preen him with single-minded dedication. He could still fly, but his damaged feet made it hard for him to land and rest. We could hear his plaintive cries for food from one end of our alleyway to the other. Then the weather turned suddenly cold and he fell silent.
George’s bad luck did not end there.
Shortly after the sick baby crow died, I saw George waiting for me as usual in the garden and went out to say hello.
I gasped in horror. My brain couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. George the magnificent, was missing half of his top beak.
First of all, I couldn’t for the life of me imagine how this happened.
I still can’t. If anyone has ideas, I’d love to hear them.
Then, I was grief stricken. After all that George had been through, this new catastrophe seemed so unfair.
I was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to survive this new challenge. I didn’t post anything about it on Facebook because I was still mentally processing both the event, and my reaction to it.
I struggled with whether it’s wrong to be so very upset about the difficulties facing a crow — given all the terrible things going on in the world.
There’s a whole other, more thoughtful, blog post being pondered to answer that question. Until then, in brief, I’ve decided it’s OK. And even if it isn’t, I can’t help it.
George’s injury doesn’t seem to have affected his confidence. Here he calls a warning to Hank and Vera to stay away from his food source.
It’s been several weeks now and I’ve become accustomed to George’s new look. I’m cheered by the adaptability he’s demonstrating with his food collection methods. When he comes for peanuts he turns his head almost upside down for better “shoveling” action. I try to help out by putting the nuts in contained space so he can trap them. It’s rather amazing how efficient he’s become.
And, happily, Mabel seems to be standing by her crow. George’s injury doesn’t seem to have affected her loyalty – the two of them remain a fierce team when it comes to protecting their territorial rights.
George and Mabel share a quiet domestic moment.
Clearly Mabel still thinks that George is the top crow, so I’m hoping the two of them together can survive and thrive. I’m full of admiration for George Halfbeak and his resilience. I’m even starting to see a certain dashing charm in his new look.
George this morning, braving the cold and frost for a few peanuts on the deck.
He had a pretty devastating 2015, but looks set to take on 2016 with typical crow determination. Good luck, George and Happy New Year.
Insomnia can be a drag. I don’t think I’ve actually had a really solid night’s sleep since my first child was born almost 26 years ago. First of all it’s the usual – feeding, teething, nightmares. Then it becomes a habit to wake up every few hours. After that, the teenage years come to keep you (well, me) wide awake and staring into the dark for hours at a time. Then, suddenly, you’re an old lady and everybody knows that old ladies sleep very lightly.
But, as with all problems, there are sometimes perks. I no longer lie in bed staring at the ceiling. I get up and explore. Those very early mornings have become a special time for me. It’s as if I’ve made a heist from the time bank and I have an hour or so to fritter away.
First of all, a cup of tea must be made.
The essential early morning companion.
After that, what to do? Sometimes I just wander around the house admiring the sheer artistry of the mess a family can create. Strewn clothing, the table buried in a pile of newspapers, magazines and neglected paperwork. Somehow at that time in the morning it doesn’t seem right to worry about tidying, so I can just appreciate the story of how everything got where it came to rest. I am always somewhat comforted by a quote from a Globe and Mail columnist I read years ago that said something about the homes of the most interesting people “showing signs of recent struggle”. I often think that (a) we must be really fascinating and (b) our housekeeping style has the added bonus of being a burglary deterrent. “Hmm, this place has already been ransacked — let’s move on.”
Our house is pretty chilly in the early hours, before the furnace comes on, so in winter I start the day in woollen slippers and a double layer of dressing gowns — one flannel, one fleece. This is a handy because I can slip out of the house, onto the roof deck, or into the garden, without immediately freezing to death.
Frost on the coral bark maple.
Sometimes I even venture out of the garden in my multi-layered dressing gown attire. Luckily we have understanding neighbours.
Everything at that special hour seems somehow very particular. In that little bubble of time I like to watch the birds arriving and see how they start their feathered days.
A pine siskin takes a moment in the ice fog for a little personal grooming.
Two Robins, One Starling
I like to look up at my particular little patch of hydro wire criss-crossed sky and see it changing. Every dawn is like the turning of a mini-season.
Crows enjoying the moonset as the sun rises.
Crows enjoying a rosy dawn.
Always, when I look to the east, I see the crows returning in small groups from the roost at Still Creek. They settle on the wires and enjoy the view for a while, do a little grooming, have a bite to eat — and then we all go on about our respective busy days.
Who needs Tiffany, when you have nature’s diamond necklace?
A frosty take off. Things to get to at the office …
Gifts are something we start thinking about at this time of year.
We fret about finding perfect gifts for the people in our life.
Free gifts and special offers abound. Things can, and often do, get kind of crazy. By December it’s hard to see the wood for the Christmas trees, vis a vis why we’re doing what we’re doing.
I think of it as being placed, reluctantly, in the luge track (or perhaps the head first Skeleton would be more apt) for the festive season. We’re tucked in and about to head off at breakneck speed. Some days will just go by in a blur, until we end up in a crumpled heap on Boxing Day, wondering how on earth we got here.
In short, there seems to be little time for reflection during the holiday season. I’m about to strap myself in for the festive ride. In fact, I’ve already sent newsletters of my own about special offers and free gifts in my online shop, for people looking to buy gifts for others.
Which got me thinking about the nature of gifts. Gifts that you can’t buy.
Of course there are many of these. Love. Friends. Family. Music. Nature. Health.
But, particularly at this crazy time of year, one of the most precious gifts is stillness.
I am a bit of a “doer” in my personal and creative life. I tend to just keep moving and doing until I’m too tired to do any more. I think I get this from both of my parents, who seemed to be constantly making, fixing, knitting, cooking or cleaning.
In some ways this is great, but it makes it hard to be “in the moment”. I find my mind insistently wanders to tasks ahead when I’m doing yoga or trying to meditate. Or even sleep.
But I finally discovered one way to stop the mind spinning and quiet the “lists”.
In 1999 my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer. My mother had died unexpectedly two years earlier and I’d hardly got my bearings after that. My dad lived in the UK. I lived in Canada with my husband, and two small children. Thanks to the great kindness of a friend, who gave me three business class trips to the UK, I was able to visit him often during his last year. When the end came, he didn’t want to die in hospital, so my last trip was not just to visit, but to nurse him at home. It was a remarkable time. My brain, I believe, actually melted a bit under the stress of fatigue and worry about him, and about the family I had abruptly left behind in Vancouver.
I slept on the floor by his bed and was awake every hour or so. For one hour a day, a nurse came in to bathe him and to give me a break. The time was not really enough to have a nap and, if I tried, my mind just raced with a competing derby of thoroughbred worries. So, instead, I took to going for walks in the countryside around the house.
On those walks, everything seemed magnified in significance and beauty. I believe that the sheer stress of grief, responsibility, and tiredness forced my eyes open in a new way.
Things that I would not have noticed before seemed truly incredible. The rusted and contorted barbed wire on the farmer’s fence seemed to somehow symbolize the struggle that my dad was going through. Every old stone wall, piece of moss and crumpled leaf seemed full of meaning. I may just have been delirious from lack of sleep, but that experience stayed with me long after he died.
In a way, it was Dad’s last gift.
It permanently changed how I look at the world.
When things are spinning out of control, I’m still an epic failure at traditional meditating. But walking and looking really closely at the things around me (which for me, involves photography) can slow things down to a peaceful pace, or even a momentary full stop.
All the lists and the worries can be briefly put to one side. For a few moments everything is still, and all that is beautiful and wonderful in nature is perfectly encapsulated in that one piece of rust or lichen, the sheen of a bird feather, the visual poetry of shadow or, the hop, skip and jump of a crow. It’s like being in a cathedral, even if it’s, geographically, an urban alley or a forest trail.
This little starling kept me company while I had a coffee at Granville Island.
Walking to pick up my van from the mechanic I came across this incredible landscape of created by a shattered windshield on the sidewalk.
The sun catches the light on lovely new post-molting season crow feathers
Amid the holiday shopping, menu planning, house decorating, travel plans, and social life scheduling, it’s worth taking the time to give yourself a few of these small gifts every day.
Downtown Vancouver – falling leaves trapped and displayed on the glass awning above the sidewalk.
To look deeply at something (not in a shop) and think to yourself “wow”.
And then move back into the slipstream of your day, but carry the “wow” with you.