On the way to the Women’s march on January 21 I saw a crow flying in front of me. She dropped a piece of food she’d been carrying and it fell through the air for a couple of feet before she casually swooped down and caught it. Clever, I thought. Then I watched as she dropped and caught the same object at least four more times before she flew out of my sight. I was so excited. I must write a blog about that, I thought. But I didn’t. Somehow it seemed too trivial in the face of everything else that was going on.
It’s not that I’ve stopped feeling inspired by urban nature — it’s just that every time I get on the computer to post something I get sidetracked by reading world news and commentary, and by the time I’ve done that, the games of a crow seem a bit irrelevant.
Today I’m going to try and pull myself together. I note that some serious political commentators sprinkle their posts with kitten pictures just to break up the general bleakness.
So, my theory is, that posting pictures of crows, other birds, pretty moss and rust etc. is a bit of a public service to the news-battered world.
And beyond the kitten-effect, I’d like to think that nature photos are especially important right now.
If you happen to catch a glimpse of soul in a crow’s gaze, then I hope it will contribute to your resolve to guard all birds against the coming assault on their habitat. Birds, after all, are one of the “canaries in the mineshaft” for the planet.
If you find yourself empathizing with a fluffed-up, chilly little hummingbird — I hope that this feeling will extend to refugees and any people who are “different” from you.
A forest fire of bigotry and distrust is starting across the world. A wind of ignorance is fanning the flames, and we are all being choked and disoriented by fake news and alternative facts.
We need to be forming a vast human to chain to chuck buckets and buckets and buckets of reason, compassion, joy and love on this mess before the whole forest catches alight.
So, whatever you need to fill your bucket — keeping informed, watching kitten videos, turning off the news, raising chickens, knitting, locking yourself in a dark room for ten minutes, or getting out and saying hi to some birds — keep that bucket well-filled. I have a feeling we’re going to be busy for some time ahead.
Just in case you really need some cat content, Edgar always happy to oblige …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you’ve been wondering where Eric the crow is these days, read on.
After a rather long day in the studio I was faced with the choice of a “feet up with tea” break, or a short walk. Luckily the sunshine outside persuaded me to go for the latter.
I do love autumn. The special light, the sharpness in the air, the colours. All were on offer for my half hour walk.
Maple leaves in bright sun and shadow
I set out in the direction of Notre Dame School at the end of our street and to my delight, as soon as I reached the corner, there was my old buddy, Eric.
Eric in his new schoolyard territory
He used to be in my garden all the time last winter, but he moved his family over to the school, with it’s stand of tall Lombardy poplars, for the nesting season.
Lombardy poplars at Kaslo and Parker
Since then, my garden has been “claimed” by Vera and Hank who tried and failed to raise a family in the big tree just across the alley. They vanished some time over the summer to be replaced by George and his family, which includes an ailing baby crow. Recently there’s been a bit of a territorial conflict with George defending “his” space from other crows — which may include Eric. It’s hard to tell who’s who when they’re swirling about in the air. Much as I’d love to have Eric back in the garden, I pretty much have to leave it to the crows to sort out their own pecking order.
However, I do try to visit the school corner once a week or so to check in and see if Eric is still there and looking well. And, I am happy to report, he is.
Eric, looking good!
After a short chat with Eric (crazy crow lady alert!) and the donation of a couple of peanuts I found in the seams of my pocket, I walked south a bit and then west along Charles Street.
As you may know, I have a bit of a hydrangea obsession — particularly at this time of year when they are a bit faded, but displaying gorgeous moody and subtle shades.
Yet another version of hydrangea’s autumn colour palette.
The long view down Charles Street, with the sun behind the maple and dogwood trees created an explosion of autumn colour.
Maple leaves with pedestrian in early evening light.
A bonanza of fallen berries on Penticton Street. When we had two Labs we had to avoid this street in fall, because they’d just stop to feast. With disastrous results later … Those berries always remind me of Molly and Taz.
A bounty of fallen berries
Post-swim Taz and Molly. Miss those dogs!
Gold and Scarlet
Finally, it was time to head home. At the corner of Parker and Slocan, I was greeted by George. I knew it was him at once because of (a) the meaningful look and (b) the sick baby crow he was with.
George was surprised to see me out of my usual garden setting, but immediately recognized me.
George’s magnificent armour plated feet reflected on a shiny fence.
George followed me the block home. We walked (well, he flew) down the alley.
Now that the leaves are mostly fallen, you can see the nest where Hank and Vera tried their hand/claws at raising a family in the spring. Hopefully they’ll succeed next year after this spring’s practice run.
Back at the garden, George settles himself on the studio roof, waiting for a few peanuts.
Home Sweet Home!
I only had half an hour “off”, but I felt as if I’d been on a proper little mini-vacation!
You can see portraits of Eric and George and the other local crow characters on my web site in the Crow Portrait series. The current gallery is about to be retired (on Oct 31) and replaced with a new series.
My City Crow calendar features all pictures of Eric and his family, taken in 2014 and 2015.
Happy autumn. Remember to get out and take a walk. You never know what (or who) you might see.