Here in New Hampshire the air has turned chilly, and frost warnings are popping up across the state. Autumn in New England means birds are on the move. The climax of the migration season is the departure of the broad-winged hawks in mid-September when thousands of broad-wings leave New Hampshire en masse, gliding from one thermal to the next.
Each fall I find myself torn between the lure of the outdoors and the creative work that needs to be done inside. Today is no exception. I was going to share another article with you, one on photography, but my plans have been derailed by birds–crows to be more precise.
It’s funny how certain sounds become so embedded in the places we live. At Skyfield, I’m familiar with the bubbly call of the red-winged black birds and bobolinks when they arrive in early spring, the croak of the first peepers in May, the chirr of the grasshoppers in August, the hoot of the barred owl hunting in the woods, and the slow rustle of the porcupine passing by my open window at night during the height of summer. I also know the subtle differences between the rumble of my neighbor’s truck cutting through the property and the truck of the nearby farmer who plows the driveway each winter.
But the sound I’m most attuned to is the chatter between the two resident crows, who live on the property year round. Crows have an extensive vocal repertoire–they can communicate alarm, defend their territory, relay messages about feeding or courtship, or demand that another bird come back and fight. Each day I wake up to the same two crows cawing to each other across the field. The dying tree near the marsh is their favorite place to perch during this sunrise, wake-up call.
During my morning walk, I watch the crows strut around the fresh-mowed field looking for seeds and insects. In early fall they gorge themselves on the fruit lying beneath the neglected apple tree. (For some reason, eating these tart, rotten apples makes the crows extra talkative. Is it possible they’re getting drunk? I wonder.)
I’m fond of crows. They have a bad reputation because they’re smart, which often makes them pests to humans. Recent research has found some crow species capable not only of tool use but of tool construction as well. The New Caledonian Crow has been seen making ‘knives’ out of stiff leaves and stalks of grass, and dropping tough nuts into a busy street so cars will crush them open. In areas where crows are hunted, the birds can tell the difference between a hunter with a gun and a farmer with a shovel. They can also tell humans apart based on individual facial features. Crows can work together when an enemy invades their territory. They will send out alarm calls and mob the intruder until it flees.
Early this morning I knew something was amiss when I woke not to the familiar caw of Skyfield’s two crows, but to a noisy, cawing ruckus instead. Even from my bed, I knew there were strange birds on the property. Still half asleep, I threw on some clothes and grabbed my camera. Outside, I saw about thirty crows circling and diving overhead. They were chattering, perching in the tops of the pines, and riding the currents. In a nearby tree, I heard the excited “chwirk” of a red-tailed hawk. A red-tail can kill and eat a crow if it’s determined enough, so perhaps the flock was gathering in order to protect itself. Or maybe the crows were on the move and momentarily embroiled in a territorial dispute with the two birds who live here. It’s impossible to know.
I quickly snapped these photos before they flew away. In about ten minutes I heard the crows chattering far off in the woods near Beach Hill. The hawk disappeared too. Then a flock of five geese passed over. As I walked through the field back to the house, I heard the familiar sound of the Pileated Woodpecker hammering on a tree. The two resident crows turned their attention to breakfast.
These dramas of nature happen on a daily basis, in the country and in the city, right under our noses, but how often do we notice? Once, when I was on sailboat moored off of Star Island on the coast of New Hampshire, I sat for two hours watching three gulls on shore fighting over a giant fish. This drama would have made even Aristotle, the toughest of theater critics, proud. It had all of the elements of a classical performance–an engaging plot, unity of action, place, and time, and a chorus of avian bystanders reacting to each plot twist. One gull was the alpha and a bully, one an opportunist, and the other a comedian. I don’t remember which bird ended up with the fish, only that I laughed out loud each time the comedian distracted the bully with some farcical gull dance and the opportunist made his move.
I am anthropomorphizing, I know, but the point is that for those two hours I was lost in the drama of the natural world and it was as pleasurable as watching a well-made film or a concert at Lincoln Center. We forget that both art and nature share this capacity, that both can be revelatory to the person who chooses to pay attention. Art, like bird watching, is about seeing, hearing, and understanding. It requires stillness. It demands that we remain open to the unexpected.
Sometimes we get so caught up in the act of doing–in planning our careers, meeting looming deadlines, answering emails, and paying the bills–that we forget that having the time to play, think, and connect is equally important to our creative work. As Sonny Rollins said, “it’s all about space.” It’s only through loss that we find what’s next. By letting go we make room for new ways of being.
There’s a reason that our best ideas come to us when we’re commuting or in the shower. Those are the periods when our brain rests and its chemistry literally changes. We don’t have to think about washing our hair or pressing the accelerator, so our mind relaxes. It’s often in these moments that we make new connections between disparate ideas, solve nagging problems, or dream up our next big project.
As Rebecca Solnit says in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, “getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing.” Here’s Solnit on the importance of courting the unfamiliar:
Certainly for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found. It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own. Scientists too, as J. Robert Oppenheimer once remarked, “live always at the ‘edge of mystery’–the boundary of the unknown. But they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fisherman; artists get you out into that dark sea.
Openness is a state of mind that the nature lover and the artist share. It offers liberation from the personal. We’re reminded that there is a larger world outside of ourselves. The best art allows us to see something we’ve missed, lost, or somehow forgotten. This morning’s chance encounter with the crows reminded me of this fact. Art, like nature, can be a portal to a greater consciousness.
If you enjoyed this post, please spread the word about Gwarlingo by sharing this article on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, etc.
Looking for an interesting book for yourself or your students? Check out the new Gwarlingo Store–a hand-picked selection of some of my favorite books on art, music, ideas, the creative process, and more. All of your purchases directly support Gwarlingo.