beating back the elements (the 9th installment of my attempts to make friends with crows)

(photo thanks to Dave Williams)

wilderness=a place not looked after.

We went for our annual vacation to a cabin on the Russian River, a moss green trickle that seems less like a river and more like a very long pond.  If I didn’t have kids, I might prefer cleaner, colder, faster water, but for now, this river is perfect:  safe and slow, with gaggles of kids splashing and laughing under the watchful eyes of a beach full of mothers.

My family began renting the cabin when I was 9 months old, one of the few rentals in a cluster of rustic summer homes nestled under the redwood trees, homes that have been passed down for generations.  In the community lodge there are pinball machines, a pool table, and rafters carved with the names of all the families who summer there.   It’s the kind of place where one uses “summer” as a verb, where the smell of hot dust and bay trees baking in the sun, the wail of a noon siren, and the taste of blackberries has triggered shared memories of childhood for centuries.  Funny how a place can be forever evocative of childhood; it’s as if childhood lives there. 

But sometimes, one has to struggle to hold on to a memory.  If you listen you will hear the buzz of various power tools which homeowners must continuously employ to beat back the elements.  Every year, friends urge me to buy a cabin, and every year I insist that we save money and have more time for fun as renters.  Our cabin sits across the street from an old abandoned house and when we arrive in August, my girls and I walk out to marvel its spectacular slow-motion collapse. The pictures I took with my crappy camera don’t convey the panorama of dilapidation, how the nails have long since rusted away and how walls of thin wooden boards have popped open in wide smiles full of crooked teeth, or how walls have pulled apart from one another to inch their way down the hill at different speeds, like a 3D model of plate tectonics.  An old claw-footed tub hangs suspended by its plumbing in thin air.

Strange how a structure requires a body’s strength to keep it together; amazing how quickly nature will have its way. 

Before we left our house in Berkeley, we had to arrange for some surrogate bodies to hold things together.  If left unattended, the ivy would break in and take over my kitchen and spiders would quickly clog the corners of the rooms.  Someone had to be there to pet the cat, feed the fish, water the gardens, collect the mail, and make sure squatters hadn’t mistaken our house for abandoned.

Regardless of our precautions, when we returned, the house seemed small, dirty, and neglected.  It smelled bad, too, as if our belongings had already started to decay.  When I walked in and saw the bag of peanuts listing by the door, I realized that I hadn’t made arrangements for the crows.  All the work I had done for almost a year to befriend them might have been erased by one oversight. 

For days I watched and waited but saw no sign of the crows.  Not on the telephone pole across the street where they usually wait for me, not in the park across the street or on the roof of the school or along my street where they sometimes catch my eye by swooping across my path and then waiting for me to pull over and toss some peanuts from my window. 

Each of us decides what things are important and then commits to sustaining them.   We have to pick carefully, because we only have time for a handful of concerns.   I have invested in my family, our house, the gardens, and my writing.  These things require custodianship, a daily commitment, or they begin, inexorably, to slip away. My little world is like Pangaea; time and gravity and the nature of things will eventually pull it apart.  I can beat back the elements but eventually, nature will have its way.

Without knowing what I was doing, without really thinking it through, I also made a commitment to the crows in my neighborhood, so when I came home one day to find seven crows (seven!  When I had never seen more than three at a time before!) waiting for me on the telephone wire, I swear, I almost cried.  “Caw, caw, caw!”  they screamed at me in raucous welcome, and I ran in to grab some food.  I sat on my front steps whistling and cooing at them for a long time, and it seemed like they stuck around longer than usual, marching down the center of the street and watching me through one eye as they do.   

Why do the crows make me so happy?  Maybe it’s because they, unlike everything else I care for, don’t depend on me to keep them alive.  With crows, caring for them and taking care of them are separate things.  They’re wild and they’ll never need me.  What a relief it is to know that they don’t.

Still, how wondrous to know that this independent creature recognizes me.  Evidently, my piddling attempts count for something. 

I am comforted by the fact that long after I’m gone, there will still be crows.  Crows, redwood trees, blackberries, and a slow green river. 

***

If you want to care for crows, here’s a few tips that might help. 

What to Feed a Crow:

Hard boiled eggs.  This is comfort food for a crow.  They like the shell, too, although I had to peel the leftover Easter eggs for them because the vibrant colors freaked them out. 

Dog biscuits or dry cat food.  These are easy—they keep well, don’t dirty my hands, and can be easily tossed up on the roof where the crows can eat unmolested. 

Table scraps.  Yes, they like my cooking. In my mind, feeding them the same things I fed my family brings us closer together.   Once, we went out for sushi and ordered too much.  Sushi doesn’t keep well, so I brought some home for the crows.  They went nutso! 

Hot dogs.  I break them in thirds so they can carry it away more easily.  They like their food portable.

Peanuts.  (Unsalted, in the shell.)  Intense competition from squirrels but still, a big hit with my crow friends.  What they can’t eat, they cache for a rainy day. 

Skip the veggies.  Just like my five-year-old, they will pick around anything green, so save yourself the clean-up. 

Questions:  What things trigger your childhood memories?  What things are worth your daily investment of time?

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About girl in the hat

aka Anna Fonté, writer of novels, short stories, personal essays, and bits about the neighborhood crows. The things I write want you to look at them.

11 comments

  1. Loved reading this, when I was a little girl I used to stand very quietly at the back of the kitchen while my dearest little grandma fed birds, a family of robins and chaffinches, by hand – even as a kid I knew it was somehow magical. So I know exactly why you love your crows so much.

  2. Mike

    What a terrific essay. I’ve been away from Girl in the Hat for a long time – meaning always to catch up — and I will. I need to fill myself in on the 7 missed crow installments.

  3. What a beautiful piece. Childhood memories are so special, so evocative of emotions that were so strong back then.

    Also – I love crows; they’re incredible birds, and the title of this post made me smile.

  4. “Funny how a place can be forever evocative of childhood; it’s as if childhood lives there.”

    What a wonderful thought, and very true. For me it’s the scent of horses that does it. I loved them as a child, and one of my favorite experiences was summer camp with horseback riding, canoeing, campfire songs. All the good things I remember from my childhood come rushing back.

    I’ve read all your crow posts, but this one is my favorite.

  5. Carol Lovekin

    Are crows gregarious in the US? The crows in your picture look like rooks!
    In the UK, rooks are the gregarious ones & have rounded tails. Crows are solitary.

    Having only just discovered your blog (& liking it immensely), I’m anxious not to upset you. I’m genuinely interested – mine is a life-long connection to corvids & crow is my sister.

    • Hello! How fascinating!
      Yes, here in Northern California, crows are more urban and ravens (which I’m just noticing you didn’t mention) are more solitary and wild. Crows are not afraid of cities and flock here but I only see ravens (usually one at a time) when I go towards the green. I don’t think we have rooks at all– rooks are a type of crow with white on their faces near the beak, no? So, compared to ravens, crows are gregarious, but perhaps not so compared to rooks.
      I must confess I did not take the photo myself, it was loaned to me by a photographer from your parts, so probably those are rooks. (I’ll have to do a bit more research. I wonder if I’m mistaken, if we ever had rooks here and if not, why?)
      Thank you for your comment!

      • Carol Lovekin

        I don’t tend to mention Raven (I simply bow in her general direction!)
        Yes, you describe a rook (UK variety at any rate) perfectly. Here rooks have creamy-white faces & beaks. (An immature one doesn’t so it can get confusing.) Their tails are rounded. Crows have black faces & square-ended tails.

        Ravens by comparison are massive.

        You aren’t the first American to tell me you don’t have rooks. It’s probably a pretty tenuous distinction. But yes, fascinating. I adore them – clever, intelligent & magical.

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