A Community of Crows

crowsI once had a writing teacher complain when I used the word ‘family’ to describe the band my mustang once led when he was living as a wild horse. Her objection revolved around a body of literature that sentimentalizes the horse, makes it a kind of human on four legs, or describes the sad tale of how a horse was ‘rescued’ from neglect or even death. Families are a human term, she said. We deprive animals of respect when we anthropomorphize them and give them human attributes.

I understand the objection, because I too tire of sentimentalizing animals and not letting them be what they are.

But what they are, to us specifically, is the issue. Horses, crows and other animals are not human. I agree they don’t experience emotions in the same way we do, nor do they care about us in the same way we care about them. Horses are not humans on four legs.

But describing them as living in families is as arbitrary as saying they live in herds, bands, flocks. Language shapes the way we feel about things, how we experience what we do, how we frame our relationship to other people, beings, the world.

So why not call a group of beings that live together, bear young, teach their young the ways of the world, protect and look out for each other, forming bonds of friendship and, dare we say it, love, “families.” How does it take away from a horse being a horse to use the arbitrary human word “family” instead of the arbitrarily devised human word “herd”?

It could be that using ‘herd’ instead of ‘family’ doesn’t have anything to do with disrespecting the horse. It could be more about how we rationalize the way we treat our fellow beings and see them as commodities or nuisances or obstacles instead of neighbors. Our language, in fact, can make it easier to do what we do to them, to think of them as separate, to believe that their relationships are somehow less meaningful. Horses live in ‘herds,’ not families. Males horses who mate with females and bear offspring are ‘sires’ not ‘fathers’ and we would never want to refer to their young as ‘babies’ (another term I used in a piece that drew criticism, despite the fact that very seasoned and hardened cowboys often refer to young horses as ‘babies.’)

Me, I have no trouble calling groups of animals who form bonds, bear young, etc., families, but then again, I don’t look at animals as chattel, but rather as friends and neighbors.

An example: When we lived in Portland, Oregon, we had a crow family as neighbors. They inhabited the trees in our backyard and were part of a very large community of crows that would gather regularly in a huge pine tree behind our house. We came to know some of them very well during the eight years we lived there.

One day a female crow, who we could recognize easily due to a small lump on her breast, ended up on a chair on our deck, apparently unable to fly. We waited and watched, hoping desperately she would be able to fly again. Her mate stayed with her for three days, and then on the third day, they went through a very elaborate ritual of saying goodbye. They touched each other, making soft noises, rubbed their bodies against each other, looked into each others’ eyes. Their saying goodbye was one of the most heartbreaking events I’ve ever witnessed. After he left, she sat alone, unable to fly or feed herself. I decided then that I had to do something, so I caught her up and took her to the Audubon Society. They told me her wing was too badly broken and they’d have to euthanize her. The woman was clearly shocked when I broke down in tears.

How could I tell her that I’d known this bird and her family for eight years, that they were our neighbors, and that, after living in the midst of this incredible community, I’d learned how intelligent these birds are. How I’d witnessed how close they bond with each other, how they care for their families. This bird was a kind of matriarch in her community and I’d seen her raise her babies. Then, at the end, to have witnessed the way her mate said goodbye. It took well over an hour and the emotion expressed was very clear to see. I felt it as I watched, helpless to do anything to help. That he said goodbye taught me as much as the emotion involved. There was an acceptance of the inevitable, the focus on having to move on, to survive.

Am I being sentimental? I doubt it. I’m not really given to sentiment. But I know what I see and I know what I feel and seeing “animals” on an equal plane as “humans” has been a part of my wiring from the earliest time I can remember. Viewing the crows that lived in our backyard as neighbors instead of vermin to be eradicated came as natural to me as breathing. Where we live now, the coyotes who inhabit the trees behind our pastures and sometimes encroach on our property are our neighbors as well. As is the cougar that jumped in front of my car (and jumped clear of it) a half mile from our house a few years back. Even those shitty little pocket gophers that have made our once pristine pastures resemble a lunar surface are our neighbors (though I have to admit I don’t mind as much when our resident blue heron manages to catch one of them).

To me, it’s just acknowledging what is. We do not hold a privileged place on this planet. Ultimately, we will be answerable to the same forces that govern the “animals” we hold as separate from ourselves. Nature has her rules and we are part of nature, despite the fact that we’ve created artifacts we believe tell us otherwise. As the saying goes, “Nature bats last,” and even to say that assumes we are separate from what we name as “Nature”–an illusion that may well get us wiped off the planet when nature takes its next big swing.

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