One bitterly cold afternoon I stood beside an icy slough not far from where the Black Vermillion River joins the Big Blue, my hands stuffed into a heavy jacket, winter hat pulled low. The 10X Swarovskis were an anchor around my neck, dangling unneeded as I studied a river of crows silently flowing southward. The land was gray with frost and graying deeper still as evening fell under a gray sky and the distant hills fading away. A harrier quartered the marsh in search of a last-minute morsel. At my feet, surrounded by several spent shotgun shells, lay the body of a crow.
Certain images linger with unwavering freshness long after time should have erased them from our memories. A dead man sprawled on the sidewalk in front of a bank in downtown Las Vegas, New Mexico. A serpentine line of sixteen vehicles winding through a narrow valley in the hills north of Grants, some with headlights snapping on in the growing dusk, my partner and I blocking the road with our truck, our palms sweaty with fear. A man sitting in the middle of a Denver street weeping and rocking in grief as rain falls and his business collapses in fire, dancing flames reflecting in the wet pavement and the night pulsing with flashing red lights.
The poignancy of these images are haunting not for their beauty but for the emotions they ignite. In each instance, the emotional impact is as crystalline as the images themselves. The human drama played out in a mostly-public sphere, with tragedy, pathos, loss, ignominious death and the threat of extreme violence—all that was lacking was a camera and a photographer. Instead, the images were burned into my psyche, synaptic snapshots of another time and place, pulled from the hoard when least expected, a flash of recognition and renewal.
So it was with the crow. Frozen to the slough, wings splayed, head submerged, it was a black stain spreading across the faintly luminous ice, no more than a scruff of midnight feathers in an arctic wasteland. It seemed a pitiable end for such an intelligent creature, gunned down for what passes as sport, its meat left to rot. Something in its shattered husk epitomized the bleak midwinter, a mesmeric cruciform in whose elements the sky and the earth were joined. For a long time I stood transfixed, the river of crows forgotten, and I thought of taking a photo but the camera was back in the truck, a good half-mile away, and I was cold and beginning to shiver.
For many Native America tribes, the crow was associated with kachinas, or spirits, and in many myths acted as a messenger between the land of the living and the land of the dead. Like the raven, it was once white, but through folly or avarice it was scorched and became black; but when sunlight hits the feathers just so one can see it in its original color. It was looked on with a mixture of fear, humor and respect, perhaps a little less so to those tribes that farmed. When crow populations exploded in the Southwest and Hopis were forced to deal with agricultural depredation by a bird considered sacred, some farmers took up shotguns and others scrambled for reasons. The natural world was unhinged, some said, an imbalance corrected only through prayer and ceremony. Others suggested darkly that witches sought to harm the tribe.
Here in northeastern Kansas, their arrival coincides with the departure of many of our songbirds as well as shortening days and lengthening nights. The timing cannot be overlooked. So what to make of the hundreds of thousands of crows that descend on our river valley in early autumn? Perhaps a new mythology is on order, a reassessment. For followers of the Native American mystic Wovoka, Crow was the messenger who would bring the ancient people and mammals back to the world of the living. The arrival of Crow was the moment of purification and redemption. In their Ghost Dance, they sang:
The crow is making a road,
He is making a road.
He has finished it.
He has finished it.
He has brought them together,
He has brought them together.
Last Friday, rain started during the night and never let up. It drummed softly on the roof as I rose from bed in darkness and padded downstairs to start the coffee, and it was tapping on the downspout when I fed Sheba her broccoli. Dawn came in a gloomy half-light and a steady downpour. Rivulets flowing down the driveway to join a broader current by the street. By noon Juganine Creek was flowing strongly and the rain unabated. Only at twilight did it relent, unleashing a flood of nighthawks on their southbound journey.
The next morning broke crisp and sunny. When I stepped outside to take the measure of the foundling day the raucous cries of several crows rose from the woods along the railroad tracks. Two more winging down from the north circled above their assemblage and cawed loudly before spiraling out of the sight behind the trees. These few corvids were the vanguard of a coming flood, and on their tailfeathers the first frosts and the winds of winter. Crow is making a road. It seemed too sudden, too early.
But then, it always seems too early.