Wen­lock Edge

The Guardian Weekly - - Diversions - Paul Evans

Two crows fly into a tree to­wards the end of a long dreamy sum­mer’s day. They had been walk­ing their beat through the flow­er­ing cocks­foot, lady’s bed­straw, pyra­mi­dal or­chids and whit­low­grass, hunt­ing there as they have done ev­ery day for 15 years I know of. They now perch to­gether as if watch­ing the sun­set, and so do I.

In the same place do­ing the same thing, what can I know of the corvid mind? We know corvid in­tel­li­gence is equal to that of pri­mates. We know early peo­ple were in­ti­mately con­nected to the crow tribes and there are fu­ner­ary relics from more than 5,000 years ago con­tain­ing the bones of crows and ravens buried in this land. This be­longs to an­cient rit­u­als that sug­gest a mu­tual trade in death; these were birds of omen long be­fore they were thought of as ver­min.

As par­ties of rooks and jack­daws clat­ter about the sky, hold­ing on to light, hold­ing off from roost­ing as long as they can, I re­mem­ber Thomas Hardy’s line in Weathers: “And rooks in fam­i­lies home­ward go. And so do I.” Where is that home we share with corvids? Is it the place we’ve al­most loved, half-feared and so per­se­cuted them in for cen­turies? We know lit­tle of the crows­cape they in­habit, we re­mem­ber lit­tle of what they once meant; they re­main a fifth col­umn, a fourth es­tate, a third world, a sec­ond sight – stone the crows!

This gath­er­ing of corvids is a place of birds: a mur­der of crows, a train of jack­daws, a tid­ing of mag­pies, a par­lia­ment of rooks, an un­kind­ness of ravens. The col­lec­tive noun oc­cu­pies a space, a com­mu­nity. The cul­ture and story of birds in­hab­its this place; a sto­ry­telling of crows? Birds ver­minous and omi­nous, per­se­cuted and mythol­o­gised. Crow – like that evoked by the poet Ted Hughes – is the great sur­vivor: fool­proof, cli­mateproof, fu­ture­proof.

In that shad­owy way of know­ing, a div­ina­tion called corvido­mancy, the fu­ture of our own ex­is­tence in self-in­flicted eco­log­i­cal tur­moil may de­pend on re­claim­ing a corvid place in the hu­man spirit and a hu­man place in crow cul­ture: a com­mon­wealth of dark won­der.

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