Thursday May 20, 2021
When the west wind blows across the lake, it has to rise when it hits the cliffs along the eastern shore.
The other day, I watched a cabal of crows dancing in that upwards rush of air.
Traditionally, a collection of crows is called a “murder”. I don’t like that term. I suspect it was coined by someone who disliked crows, who shot them whenever he could.
“Cabal,” to my mind, better fits crows’ mischievous nature. It’s also alliterative.
This particular cabal put on quite a performance.
A couple of crows simply raced back and forth, just below the top of the cliffs, riding the air the way a surfer would ride a monster wave.
The rest – up to a dozen; they’re hard to count in constant motion – swooped and swirled just above the cliff edge. Right over my head. So close I could have hit them with a stick. Fortunately, I didn’t have one. So I just watched.
They flipped over, and flew on their backs.
They played chicken (figuratively speaking). Two crows rushed at each other, only to swerve at the last possible instant.
They hovered on the wind, just staying still. Exactly (as Douglas Adam wrote in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) the way a brick doesn’t. Or the way Gerard Manley Hopkins’ falcon rode “the rolling level underneath him steady air” in The Windhover.
They did a falling leaf routine, flopping forwards and backwards. I had never seen crows fly backwards before, but they did it.
They soared up, and let themselves crash, falling like a bundle of lifeless feathers, as if someone really had shot them. Then they spread their wings and soared again.
I found myself envying their mastery of the invisible element they lived in.
Can they, perhaps, see wind currents in a way that we humans cannot?
Too risky for me
Long ago, I dreamed of taking flying lessons. Of becoming an amateur pilot. Of seeing the world from a new perspective.
I never did it. For all the usual reasons – money, career, mortgages, children… But even if I had learned to fly, I would never have risked the crows’ stunts. To let my wings flap loose? To let go of the controls? To tumble, loose, broken…?
I don’t have the courage to crash with my feet on the ground, let alone high in the air. I’m too afraid of getting hurt.
I wondered what they were doing.
It seemed more than just spontaneous. To have that many crows, all cavorting at once, suggests an intentional gathering.
Was it a mating game?
Were they enacting some kind of a religious ritual? Crows are certainly intelligent enough to develop some common concepts of the meaning of life.
And then, abruptly, they were gone.
I didn’t see any of them shake hands with a waiting crow at the edge of the cliff as they left, so it can’t have been a worship service.
Perhaps they were just having fun. Taking a break from the thankless routines of building nests, finding food, feeding gaping mouths.
Sudden thought: could they have done their dance for me? To tell me not to take life so seriously? To let go, to laugh wildly, to do silly things?
Would crows ever do that?
Copyright © 2021 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Last week, I wrote about the rather hypothetical discontinuity between individual and mob – or indeed between any two extremes.
Tom Watson summed up my column in his own words: “We never know the discontinuity until we have experienced it; until then, it's answering a question in a vacuum. We do the latter all the time, of course, but then find out, through experience, that we don't know what we thought we knew.”
Bob Rollwagen applied my words to the U.S. experience: “I share your optimism about a few, but find it easy also to be pessimistic about humanity. Just look at our so-called friends to the south. Texas bans abortion and criminalizes any person not reporting any citizen who gets an abortion. Other states have decided that voting is for the few, not all. It appears that the great democratic experiment is coming to an end.
“If this is the case, why are so many people ignoring it? Do the rich and privileged feel they are exempt and will not be impacted? Markets are going up [while] the poor are getting poorer. Of the almost 600,000 American who have died from Covid, the majority fit the American definition of not-privileged, and the few privileged are what the Right Wing call collateral damage.”
Ted Spencer was even less kind: “That hearkens to a cynical (but probably entirely true) understanding of the Collective American World View:
• If it’s smaller than you, kill it.
• If it’s bigger than you, run away from it.
• If it’s the same size as you, copulate with it.
“The Individual American World View (so I am led to believe) does not mesh with the above, [demonstrating] the illogical disconnect…
“Aren’t we fortunate to have, so near at hand, such an ideal subject upon whom we (which really means ‘I’) can practise our bigotry?”
Steve Roney brought in theology: “I am completely in agreement with your claim that individuals are more trustworthy than people in groups. This is a powerful argument for free markets and individual liberty, as opposed to government control and group identity.
“Moreover, your claim is in accord with what we all can observe: mobs are irresponsible and dangerous.
“’Irresponsible’ is the key word here. As individuals, we are obliged to take personal responsibility for our acts, and so our conscience is engaged. If we surrender our responsibility to some group, we can more easily ignore our conscience. We can let our sinister tendencies ‘run riot,’ to use the familiar phrase.
“But this is because we already have those sinister tendencies. It is not a simple matter of individuals innately good, groups bad. The bad tendency must already exist at the individual level, but be held in
“It seems to me that you are left needing to acknowledge the concept of original sin.”
My paraphrases have evolved. The first version of Psalm 29 treated God as the instigator of natural disasters. I don’t see God that way anymore. Now I have to recognize that crises and disasters – volcanoes, floods, storms – that shatter the stability of our ordered lives are also often the means of moving to a new awareness.
So I’ve modified the earlier version, to this:
1 Don't hang your hopes on human capabilities.
2 Science and technology, wealth and popularity --
these will all pass away.
3 Fame and fortune will not save you when disaster strikes.
The winds whirl in; wild waters tear away your shores.
4 Houses collapse like cards; corporations crumble; assets become worthless.
5 In the storms of life, mighty empires are uprooted.
6 You stand as naked and helpless as the day you were born.
Your possessions, your wealth, your status are useless to you.
7 There is just you and God.
8 You tremble like a twig in a tempest.
9 All that you depended upon is stripped away, like the last leaves from autumn trees.
10 Faced with your own frailty, you may sink into despair. Nothing can save you -- except the comforting presence of God. God is always there, supporting you as water supports a fish.
11 God’s all-encompassing compassion is greater than any human crisis.
Only God can sustain you through the storm,
and carry you to the calm on the other side.
You can find paraphrases of most of the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary in my book Everyday Psalmsavailable from Wood Lake Publishing, email@example.com.
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ALVA WOOD’S ARCHIVE
I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)