On Crows, or What It’s Like to Fly

For a long time I have felt that I am a crow.

My obsession with crows began in my teenage years when I would follow the neighboring murder of them around my childhood home on Signal Mountain in Tennessee. I filmed them with the VHS camcorder I’d gotten as a Christmas present around this time (other tapes from this era include footage of my friends and I skateboarding off a ramp constructed out of a cinder block and a piece of plywood; also—pyrotechnic experiments involving firecrackers and stuffed animals). To me, the movement of these crows was magical, otherworldly. Their calls to each other seemed to make a kind of sense to my subconscious mind.

I quickly wanted to learn more about corvids, the family of oscine passerine birds to which crows belong that includes ravens, magpies, and blue jays. Here, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology was a treasure trove of research. I learned that crows recognize faces, hold grudges for years, and even pass grudges down to their offspring. I learned that they mate for life, love to collect things (even sometimes for their human friends), and acknowledge the death of their brethren.

It didn’t hurt that I soon discovered the graphic novel, The Crow, by James O’Barr (and the subsequent film starring Brandon Lee, Bruce Lee’s son). I began to learn about the important place that crows and ravens held in mythical traditions across the globe.

Odin, the half-blind Allfather of the gods in Norse mythology, had two ravens who sat on either of his shoulders: Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory). At dawn they flew out across the world, returning for dinner each night to tell Odin of the many events that transpired in distant lands. In The Poetic Edda, Odin ponders, “Hugin and Munin fly each day over the spacious earth. I fear for Hugin, that he come not back, yet more anxious am I for Munin.”

The Lenape Native Americans tell a legend of the Rainbow Crow (in other traditions, like the Sioux, Cherokee, and Choctaw, the crow was completely white and perhaps not as victorious). One day, the great Snow Spirit came and brought a new and strange thing to the world: the freezing cold of ice and snow. Fearing that all living creatures would freeze to death, Crow sang with a voice so lovely and beguiling that he caught the attention of the Creator. But no matter how Crow pleaded, the Creator would not warm the world. So Crow flew up into the sky with a branch in his mouth and touched its pith to the Sun. As Crow descended back to earth with the flaming branch, smoke filled his syrinx as he breathed and covered his wings with ash as they carried him back down from the stars. So it was that Crow brought Fire to warm the world and, in the process, turned his song into a croak and changed his feathers from kaleidoscopic rainbow to the black we see today. (Note the similarities here to the Greek myth of Prometheus.)

Aesop tells the fable of The Fox & the Crow. In Mayan mythology, the crow was one of four animals (along with a mountain cat, a coyote, and a parrot) who first discovered maize (corn), from which the Creators fashioned humans. After the Great Flood detailed in Genesis, before Noah sent out the dove who brought back the famous olive branch, he sent out a raven to test whether the world was habitable. In nearly all cultures, crows are tricksters who travel between the worlds: between the gods and the humans, between the earth and the sky, between the living and the dead.

As I grew up I learned about how New Caledonian crows are the only animal outside of the great apes to exhibit sequential tool use—that is, to use a tool to retrieve another tool in order to retrieve food. In fact, we now know that they understand water displacement, exhibit complex social learning, and can solve puzzles involving 8 steps, without ever having seen the arrangement of puzzle elements before. We know that alalā, or Hawaiian crows, also use tools, though perhaps not sequentially. Also, it turns out hooded crows like to skateboard as much as I do.

In thinking back upon my obsession with these birds, I remembered vividly that from the very beginning I felt a soaring feeling when I would watch crows. I felt as though I could fly with them. As I’ve been learning more about embodied cognition, I’ve been wondering where I formed the very vivid proprioceptive sensation of flying that I feel when I look at these winged creatures gliding through the wind. The prose poem below is my attempt at articulating my conscious understanding of why I know what it feels like to fly.

Flying is like jumping. Hopping from rock to rock, laughing with friends.

 

Flying is like flying. Being in an airplane miles above the earth, lifted away from the familiar world you’ve always known and thought you cared so much about.

 

Flying is like swimming. Drifting along and being carried by unseen forces that you can simultaneously understand and control but also never understand and never control.

 

Flying is like dancing. Spinning free and forgetting where you are and forgetting who you are and forgetting why you are. Flowing all at once in eternity with everything.

 

Flying is like being in the womb. Floating in an emptiness you don’t understand before you even exist.

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