Monday, May 31, 2004

The Baby Crow
by Basil Miller

My wife was first to see The Crow, or I should say, the first to notice it. I had seen it a few minutes before, but hadn't noticed it. The Crow was about to provide me the opportunity to consider human nature, the appalling animalistic quality of it, the troubling nature of creatures in general. The Crow was about to provide me a much needed afternoon of self-reflection. But I hadn't noticed that yet either.

I was working in the yard. To be specific, I was emptying garbage bags of kindling we had picked up by the roadside ("Free Wood"), and pulling all the rusty nails out of the rotten boards. Someone had definitely torn down something. More than a fence I suspected. A barn, a shack of some sort, an old shed? The nails were a combination of newer, tiny, zinc coated nails, and enormous old rusty spikes. The oldest, and rustiest nails were in wood that was rotten clear through. Someone had added on to something. Someone had added on to something old. I imagined it something left over from the pioneer days, wondering if I might find a stray slug embedded in the wood here or there.

If the nails were protruding and had a head, I used my 15 inch pry-bar and pulled them out. If there were too many nails, I took my axe and split things up. After going through several bags, I picked up a large bag old roofing shingles and carried it to my shed. The old roof shingles would lay under my workbench in my shed, while the rotten, splintered, broken up wood would be outside in an easily accessible kindling bin I had under my deck.

"Did you see the Baby Crow?"

My wife's voice was coming down from the deck directly above me. I glanced up, and before I could turn all the way around to my wife my eyes caught the eyes of the crow, atop a pile of sticks, the remnants of the neighbor's cherry tree that had gone down in a storm a month ago, about three feet away.

"Yes," I answered. "I saw it before, but I didn't know it was still sitting there. I figured it had flown away."

Earlier in the day I had noticed the dog staring off the deck toward my wood pile. She wasn't barking which meant it wasn't a squirrel. She was just sitting there staring, which meant... I don't know what. So I got up to go out on the deck and see what she was staring at.

There it was, a crow sitting there all by itself atop a pile of half-heartedly chopped up branches. I thought to myself, "oh, how strange... it's just sitting there."

Well, it was four hours later and the crow was still sitting there. So, now I noticed!

"It's a baby," my wife continued. "It can't fly yet."

"Well, I guess not," I interrupted. "It's been there several hours."

"I wonder if we can help it," she finished.

I didn't figure there was much we could do to help it. But might as well try, I thought.

"Let's leave it be for a while and keep an eye on it," I said. "See if any other crows come down to visit it."

I was on a role pulling out nails and didn't want to stop when I'd just gotten going.

So, I sat down and worked, keeping the corner of my eye on the Baby Crow.

The old rotten wood and large, rusty, spike-size nails made me contemplate an older day and age, when men worked out in the yard all day long, not for the fun of it, but for survival. You had as many kids as you could, back then, not for your personal entertainment, like today, but because you needed them to survive. You had to have people working for you... people on your side. Everyone else out there, every stranger, couldn't be trusted. So you worked your hands to the bone, and only rested late in the evening, reading a book or smoking a pipe by the fire.

Some like that had nailed these nails into this thing. Built himself a shack, a barn, a stable. And now, here I was tearing apart the wood. Not because I needed wood to keep my house warn in the winter, but because I wanted wood to keep my house warm for the winter. Entertainment.

My wife was coming out the downstairs sliding glass door with some broken up crackers.

"Good idea," I said. "I guess I'll help you try to feed him. Crows love cherries. I wonder if they like strawberries."

I headed for the front yard where I have so many strawberries growing (and rotting, and being devoured by slugs) that I couldn't harvest them all. In another time and place, none of these strawberries would go to waste. Now it was cheaper to buy a flat of them down at the grocery store for a couple bucks. I couldn't afford to pick my own flat of strawberries. It would take me all day. My time was worth more than a couple bucks. Wasn't it?

Anyway, I came back with a few half-slug-eaten berries. My wife was crumbling up the crackers on a tall stump.

"I don't think he can get there," I mumbled. "I've seen him hop all around on the wood pile, but I haven't seen him hop up on top of the stump. I don't think he can."

I moved in closer and dripped the berries down on a lower stump in the middle of the pile of branches. Took a few crackers from my wife and crumbled them there with the berries.

I went back to work. Remembering that ancient time when people road stage coaches across the plains in order to find some land on which to settle. Now days, you couldn't afford land. You could only afford a tiny lot that surrounded your house. Just enough space to plant bushes and trees - give yourself some privacy. But in those days. Those were the days!

Of course, you needed land, because you would live off it.

The Crow didn't eat. In fact, the other crows swooped down and snatched up all the crackers and flew away. All the while the baby squawked at them, and they squawked back.

Maybe that was how they taught their babies to survive, I thought. Steal all their food from them so that they fight for something to eat. Maybe that was why crows were such prolific creatures. They learned to survive from the time they were a newborn.

Could their parents really treat them like that? Starve them and steal food from them? How inhumane!

I sat there and thought about a bygone era when men and women all lived to survive. I remembered a conversation I'd had with my wife the day before:

"Those people in ancient times weren't all that stupid. They were pretty smart!"

"What?" As usual, I couldn't understand my wife's muttering. "What are you talking about?"

"I've always thought," she said with her usual sheepish innocence, "that in ancient times people weren't as smart as they are today. That people were really stupid back then."

"Oh," I answered. The unuttered what times? what people? what are you talking about? in the back of my mind.

"I was just reading about saint..." (I didn't catch the name) she continued. "And he really knew what he was talking about."

I attempt to contribute to this discussion. "Well, of course, in the ancient times they didn't know as much as we know today scientifically and all that, but they were pretty astute as far as understanding human nature is concerned." There, that should suffice.

"But Justinian... or was it Justin. I'm reading about Justinian and Justin," she continued. "One of them, I forget which..."

"Well, Justinian made a mess of the Roman Empire. But he cranked out some awesome code of law. In fact, the first thing they teach you in law school is the code of Justinian. It's the foundation of all modern law."

"Yeah, that's it. He and Theodora bankrupted the empire giving away to the poor."

"Ah, I see." I answered. So now I know what the Orthodox had to say about the very thing one of my co-workers who is reading the full history of the Byzantine Empire by John Julius Norwich happened to mention to me the other day. That Justinian made an incredible mess of the Roman Empire.

"Well, the main thing was," I had to add, "that people back in those days didn't have time to think. Only the independently wealthy had time to sit around and do nothing but think. Everybody else worked from sun-up to sun-down trying to survive. Trying to get together enough food for themselves to eat and to feed their children. Trying to have enough children so that someone survives long enough to take care of them in their old age. It was a vicious cycle, taking care of the children, struggling to survive, and them taking care of you when you could no longer work."

It wasn't that I recounted the whole conversation with my wife as I sat there pulling nails out of rotten wood that would someday be burnt up in woodstove. No, it was that I remembered again that nugget of truth we had passed over in our discussions. "People didn't know everything back in those days." (And the unmentionable: we still don't now.) "People worked hard to survive. It was only those who had plenty of leisure time that did the thinking."

Now days, all people do is think. Everyone is an amateur philosopher, an amateur theologian, an amateur historian. Everyone is an expert on something, some moment in time, or some idea once up born by the winds of public opinion, and forever epitomized in a name someone had made for themselves. Now days, everybody thinks. Ninety percent of all the work out there was intellectual. Man, how things had changed! But I still enjoyed the rugged outdoors survival sort of work as a past-time. It was a form of entertainment, plain and true. What was more: it was what differentiated between us and the animals.

I looked up at my friend The Baby Crow. My wife was coming through the door again, this time she had the scrambled up contents of a hard boiled egg. "I looked it up," she shouted across the yard at me. "They say to feed baby birds a hard boiled egg."

Okay, I thought. So they are cannibals.

"It's true," she continued. As if she could read my thoughts. "The crows always eat up all the hard boiled eggs people leave on the tomb stones at Pascha."

Yeah, that made sense. Cannibals.

"It probably won't do any good," I told her. "All the other crows keep diving down and taking away the baby's food."

"Really," she exclaimed. It was the sort of "really" that meant she believed me, and felt deeply disappointed. "That's terrible!" I know that's what she'd say next.

"Yeah, I guess it's all survival of the fittest for the crows. Every crow for himself."

My wife left the egg. "Don't leave it on the stump," I shouted. "He can't get up there. I've watched him try."

He really couldn't. He couldn't fly yet at all. All he did was hop from branch to branch across the heap of cut up branches. The stump was too tall for him.

So, I went back to my ancient scraps of wood. Those that had too many nails to remove, I now just pounded down so that nobody would cut themselves trying to put it in the fire. I could always imagine my daughter scratching herself on a nail, and running away wailing. It would be the only time she volunteered to help. A special thing to help daddy. And she'd get infected and die. An agonizing, and painful death, each day getting sicker than the one before. I pounded the nails in hard.

I watched another crow swoop down across the back yard and snag an enormous piece of egg. Almost without stopping he sailed back into a tree. Probably the tree where her nest was, I figured. I looked up high. You could hear a lot of squawking between the Baby, the Thief, the other Crows in the neighborhood. It was hard to tell if any were squawking up in the tree.

Damn shame, them crows. Stealing the food from their own Children. It was what, I supposed, separated man from the animals. The ability to make a sacrifice for others: particularly your own Children.

Then suddenly I had an idea. Ideas: they were what separated man from the beasts. Only humans could come up with ideas: solutions to problems that only they could foresee.

I had been entertaining the thought of throwing sticks at one of the Thief crows. Or perhaps a rock. But I didn't think I could do it without scaring the baby. But then I had The Idea. I Remembered. (The mind: it was what separated man from the animals.) It was the garage-sale-new double barrel high pressure, super squirter I had recently picked up. That thing could shoot thirty feet. I knew it could, because I had already tried it. My daughter knew it could too.

The next time the Thief Crow swooped down to steal some food I'd nail him. I went out into the yard where I had a bucket of water waiting and loaded the gun. A double barrel jet action that would make that thief think twice.

I was back at my scraps of wood and nails again when he came swooping down and landed in the lower branches of the tree. I slowly crept over to where I had the water gun laying, but that thief was onto me. By the time I had the gun raised, he was further up in the tree. Squawking madly. I knew I couldn't nail him through all those branches. Probably couldn't even mist him. I slowly stalked the foliage beneath the trees until he gave up and flew away. A few minutes later he was back, however, and I repeated my stealthy approach. But once again he flew away before I could so much as mist him.

That was the difference between man and animals, you see. A man could rationalize, could think, could figure things out. A man could decide who he would let eat, and who he wouldn't. And by George, I was always in favor of the underdog. Give me a victim, and I'll help them trade places with the victimizer any day. That's how I always was, always had been. That was the difference between humanity and the dumb beasts. On top of the immortal soul, of course. We could make choices that were a sacrifice to ourselves, and we could make choices to feed one mouth, while keeping the other at bay with a double-barrel extra-sharp 30 foot super-shooting squirt gun.

We repeated this process, bird and I, several times before I finally decided to forget about him. I let one squirt fly thought the air at one point, but it was all just for show. (Another important aspect of human nature: inspiring the fear of man in the dumb beasts.) There wasn't much food left down there for the baby anyway. And the baby wasn't even trying to eat.

I thought that was strange. Screeeeeeeh... a big long rusty nail slid nicely out of a rotten board. Awfully strange. Why wasn't the baby eating any of the food we'd brought her?

Then suddenly it hit me: He couldn't eat!

Of course, that had to be it. This baby crow was too young to eat solid food. In fact he was at the age where... I looked up nervously at where the crow stood atop the pile of sticks, looked up guiltily into the branches of the trees above him. He was at the age where he had to be feed by his mother. His mother would eat something, and regurgitate it in a liquid form and stick it into his beak. I'd seen it many times on one or another of those nature shows.

My wife came popping out the door again at the perfect time. Any longer and I would have had time to feel more guilty. It was I who was keeping the bird from getting fed by scaring all the other crows away.

The main difference between man and the beasts: we are untrusting, and therefore can make stupid mistakes.

"Has it eaten anything?" my wife asked.

"Nope," I answered uneasily. "Probably nothing we can do... but... I... uh... I plan to just play it low key for a while and sit back here working... see if anything interesting develops. Maybe we are scaring the bird giving it too much attention."

"Maybe I should call PAWS," my wife said.

"Yeah, good idea. Call PAWS and see if they have any suggestions."

My wife came back several minutest later. "Yeah, they said that the only problem we might have is being dive-bombed by a whole bunch of crows that are trying to protect the baby."

"Hmmm..." It didn't seem likely to me. I mean, I'd seen one or two others come, but certainly no dive-bombing. Maybe they understood about the double-barrel super squirter? "Did they say anything about her eating?"

"Yeah, they said that crows are always fed by their mother until after they can fly."

Ooops. Sure enough. It was all my fault. I'd been keeping them from feeding it half the day.

"Okay," I answered. "Well, I'm going to go inside now."

Main difference between man and the animals. We are just plain stupid.

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