Crows and hope/loss
“We are bad at time too. We cannot remember what lived here before we did; we cannot love what is not. Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead. We live out our three score and ten, and tie our knots and lines only to ourselves. We take solace in pictures, and we wipe the hills of history.” —H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald
It’s been a scramble of a time meeting a copy editing deadline, during which I was frequently weeping at my desk because the book the 5th-graders are studying in this textbook is Veera Hiranandani’s The Night Diary, a fictional account (based on the author’s father’s life) of a family’s experiences during the violent upheaval of India’s Partition in 1947. I learned more than I could have imagined about Partition and the long colonial history of empire in India—part of my job (my favorite part) involves fact-checking, so the question “How long did the British Crown rule India?” led me down a lot of tangled paths. (“Too long” is an easy answer, especially when you count the pre-Crown but England-approved corporate takeover by the East India Company.)
It’s a beautifully written middle grade novel, in the form of a 12-year-old girl’s diary entries to her mother who died in childbirth. The pain of her absent mother mixed with the pain of watching people who’d lived peacefully together most of their lives turn on each other in deceptively simple prose. Even with my eyes aching from hours of staring at Word and Google docs and PDFs, the layers of loss were palpable. Which means as a writer Hiranandani succeeded: we should always be able to feel the shape and weight of loss, but it’s something many cultures, including my own, hide from.
Walking home from school drop-off, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to crows and magpies, much maligned birds (along with ravens) who’ve always shown up in some of my favorite fantasy novels as signs of ill or evil. But as people understand more about crows and ravens—and magpies—I’ve found myself drawn to them. It started when I was hunting a few years ago, alone deep in silent woods except for a scolding squirrel, and a raven flew overhead with a kind of liquid call I’d never heard before (I thought it was a crow but later described the call to a birder friend, who corrected me). What goes on in these woods when people aren’t around is what I thought then and continue to think, even when I’m there and try to persuade myself to stop walking and just sit and listen.
It’s hard to stop walking, even though most of the hunting I do would be better off for it. But the woods when it’s winter and you’re the only person in them and not going anywhere in particular are pure magic, a draw, like you’ve got a spell put over you by some magical being in a fairy tale. Whether for good or ill, though, I’ve yet to find out.
It’s natural, for me at least, to feel a bit of hope and uplift at the end of a year. Kind of like the start of September, when school years were just starting and you hadn’t had a chance to fall behind on homework yet.
The despair of present reality mixes with these little cycles of uplift, not just for me but for many people I’ve been hearing from. The Night Diary reminded me yet again that most of my perceptions about history, my time, and my place in it, are illusory. The things I fear have been part of far too many people’s reality for far too long. Not just decades or centuries, but thousands of years.
I hope more people find a way to face the present and at every turn take the next step, however hesitantly, to connect with others and walk through . . . whatever this is together, rather than turning away, or walling ourselves off or in. As the motto for Mutual Aid says, all we have, truly, is each other. But we also have this planet, a miraculous place that might help us find a path through the fires if we can learn to love it again.
Some stuff to read:
A crow in Oregon made friends with kids in an elementary school, and proved that crows can learn to swear.
A beautifully woven essay by Kim Steutermann Rogers about albatrosses and a different kind of loss, an absence, in Atticus: “Every year, I watch as these two females show up, scratch a nest cup out of dirt and leaves, and lay their eggs. Then, they take shifts, waiting for a chick to pip its way to freedom. But it never does. There are no chicks. The eggs aren’t fertilized.”
Someone sent me this intriguing, winding essay in The Learned Pig by Dave Borthwick, about place and land and the stories a field holds: “You walk the place and try to know something of it, but it does not know itself. You do not have a farmer’s eye, or a farmer’s work. You wish only to find a place you can think along with, raise a family in. You cannot predict when you might be asked to leave. In this, you realise, you share commons with those whose stories you cannot trace.”
Brown Political Review has discovered the wonders of Henry George’s Land Value Tax: “In addition to its desirable efficiency, land value taxation radically changes the incentives around land use, potentially helping housing-starved cities kickstart new development.”
I don’t have podcast recommendations because I used all my listening time either on Third Squad, which I’ve already recommended and still do even though it’s hard, and listening to the entire Stolen series. Which I did not like (I felt like the host meant well but missed a lot about place and colonialism that seem essential to the story here), and am curious if others have listened and did.