Saturday, December 10, 2005

Caught in the eye of the crow

Snow hides everything. It shrouds the pellet-riddled bodies of the starlings that drop from my suet feeders, erasing their black iridescent feathers as if they never existed or had the temerity to choose my yard for their brigandage. It blankets the seeds almost as fast as I toss them out, and desperate birds scratch and claw and blindly peck through the rising drifts. It covers the tracks I drag behind me so that when I turn to survey my meanderings there is no history of my passing. I might have been created here from this white earth, fashioned from virgin snow with ice water for blood, each step my first, each moment new, a cosmogony of snow.

That lack of record is bothersome but won’t stop me. I plunge ahead, silence paramount save for snow ticking off the Gore-Tex shell and the toc-toc-toc of my trekking poles keeping pace with my boots. I’ve forgotten to bring my watch and know that if Lori gets home before I do she’ll wonder where I went, and no note to inform her. But what would I have written? That I needed to hear the sound of snow falling through winter trees? Or that my feet, like restless sprites wandering wherever they will (and I subservient to them), embarked upon a journey with no certain destination, and that any fence post, tangled thicket or winding creekbed cascading from the windswept hills possessed the potential to deflect my steps and take me elsewhere? Such a note would say little more than she could fathom herself. I went out, is all. And if by bad luck I do not return, summon help. But better to ask the crow, if he will tell you.

There are no mysteries for crows. Behind those depthless black eyes resides a brain as comparatively large as that of a chimpanzee, and so, by inference, an intelligence surpassing most politicians. They possess the collective wisdom of millennia of studying mankind and the world they inhabit, and an oral tradition that keeps it fresh. Their evening roosts are given over to storytelling, regaling their adventures and exploits of the day—a particularly juicy morsel of roadkill, the trick X played on Y, advice on which field is best for winnowing corn, and perhaps warnings on areas where an uncompromising and humorless farmer lives. Tonight I would give them something to debate.

My going was spontaneous but not foolish. Before starting, I took time to slip knee-high gaiters over my waterproof boots. I dressed warmly. And then I closed the door behind me and stepped into air vaporous with snow, and so crossed a neighbor’s fields, and wended through the trees to the railroad tracks, and crossed over and down into a field where I aimed for the crest of the hill, barely visible in the snowfall. A fence blocked my passage, so, like a river seeking the path of least resistance, I turned and angled downhill, following a gulley to stand at last beneath the railroad trestle.

Where to now? Such is always the question, especially on a cold afternoon with five inches of snow on the ground and more falling so fast that it heaps on me until I become more Yeti-like than human.

A gap in a barbed wire fence catches my eye and I am gone, slipping through and up the incline to the iron rails, and thence westward past the road to the westernmost house and beyond. The storm engulfs me.

Oh, this is delicious fun. If it is indeed impossible to lose oneself in much of the conterminous lower 48, then this is the next best thing. Wilderness ready-made, the virgin wild, and none about but the hardy explorer. Which is me, and I exulting in it, the sensory overload, the tactile feel of boots sinking into drifts and the swish-swish of the sticks dragging snow. I scrutinize the patterns on the land, the pallid treeless hills, the dark timbered coulees, the sensuous curve of a streambed painted on textureless white fields, the dark splashes of cedars bowed under the weight of snow. The only movement that of myself and the inescapable crows silently winging overhead, their stygian eyes taking in this strange sight and making no remark upon it. But that will come.

So far I hadn’t heard their guttural calls, but when I stride out onto a vast whited field I hear one, then two. They bark sharply, as if calling attention to the figure below. A pair banks and returns as if scrutinizing me, and wheels away to disappear in the ghostly twilight. Again I make for the hill, and again a tight-strung fence blocks my way. Rebuffed, I turn back, and notice a crow sitting atop a high tree, intently watching me.

Thereafter, I am shadowed by dark shapes that swirl through the blizzard, singly, in pairs, or, once, a mob that boils over the treeline to heckle and jeer. Surely my actions are aberrant, and the crows seem intrigued by them. No matter where I trek they follow.

Snow is falling fast when I near home. Below the feeders five crows watch this apparition materialize from the storm. One utters a raucous caw, throwing its weight into the call as if coughing out a hairball. The others nod their heads and take flight, and as they circle me their shouts are unrelenting. It sounds like laughter.

When I glance in the mirror inside the front door I see a figure with snow piled on its head and shoulders, with a frozen beard dangling with unruly icicles. It is admittedly a bizarre sight, and I can’t help but join the crows in hilarity, they in flight and me grounded, our conjoined voices a rollicking wave of mirth. Lord, how we laugh.

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