Monday, May 25, 2009

When Symbolism Invades Daily Life

Well, rather opaque symbolism.

Here's the deal. A couple of years back, on a hot summer afternoon. various members of my family were over hanging out at the pool, doing family-summer-afternoon sorts of things.

Pamela heard a rustling back in the bushes by the rear wall of our yard. When she investigated, she found it was a baby crow, and when she tried to coax it out of the bushes, said baby crow made a mad rush around her and flung itself into the swimming pool.

Pamela, being the sort of person she is, followed the crow into the pool, and before a crowd of spectators that now included two cawing crow parents, we managed to effect a rescue that ended with the baby crow perched on my shoulder.

We have pet birds--a pair of cockatiels--though I must say they are rather less imposing than a fledgling crow. I admit that having two sets of large claws clinging to my upper trapezius muscle was unnerving, and even a young crow has a rather wicked scythe of a beak that it isn't relaxing to have poised near one's unprotected eyeball.

Nonetheless, we knew something about birds, and something about wet birds in particular. Barring the possible exception of waterfowl, what is it that a sopping bird wants most?

To be blow-dried.

We discovered bird blow-drying on a cold Seattle evening when one of our cockatiels insisted on jumping into the shower with us and then sat there shivering afterwards. Since this seemed like a recipe for overnight death, we tried gettting out the blow dryer...

She loved it. Sat there on my shoulder and leaned into the hot breeze with eyes shut tight in birdy bliss. Birds love being blow-dried, and it is entirely possible that the purpose of evolution all along has been to create a species that could construct blow dryers to serve the needs of some yet-uncreated Birdie Master Race.

So we blow-dried (blew-dried?) the crow. And, like our cockatiel, the crow treated the loud, roaring electrical device as if he had been waiting for us to get around to it.

My sister had her young son along with her, and amongst all the toddler impedimenta had brought some cooked chicken. Peeled off in long wormy strips, this morphed nicely across species into a crow snack.

Evening approached all too fast, closing our window of opportunity to reunite the crow with his parents. With the baby crow at last warmed up and fed, we took him outside. His parents flew back and forth above us, calling out, and we placed him atop a wall. They cawed for him to join them, and somehow, in the gathering dark, finally encouraged him to flap up and join them in a tree. Meanwhile, we humans all retreated into the house and patted ourselves on the back for a job well done.

A few days later, the crows were back. The parents stayed well away, but Crow Baby, now a bit more skilled in the skies, flew down and perched low on our roof, calling to us. He wasn't in need of blow-drying, so we brought out some food, and as soon as we backed inot the house, he swooped down on it and ate greedily, no doubt pleased at how well he'd trained us.

That's how we acquired a rather demanding resident crow. He comes when he hears the back door open, or even swoops past us, bitching about our tardy serivce, if we go out the front door and haven't yet fed him. And eventually he showed up with a mate; and at least once a year and sometimes twice, he now shows up with a two or three clumsy babies, all calling out to be fed. (What happens to these babies in the longer term I don't know. It seems that by now we'd have a flock of twenty-some crows, but it seems that at some point the youngsters get the boot.)

My, you're saying, what a charming story--or, perhaps, What the hell does that have to do with anything? Well, if you'll stop fidgeting and drop your gum in the wastebasket, I'll continue.

We have a huge chimney attached to our house, the sort of thing a Californian looks at and, inspired by its soaring height, says to himself, Lordy, it's going to cost a fortune when that thing goes down in an earthquake. Why we have fireplaces in Southern California in the first place is an unanswered question, much less the two fireplaces attached to this massive brick tower; but I didn't design the place. (From the looks of it, it was designed on Cape Cod about 300 years ago. It has gables and such.)

The crows like the chimney--it's both high and isolated. Plus you can cary nice bits of roadkill up there and crack the bones open against the mortar.

If you're an adolescent crow, you can also lose your balance and fall down the chimney. One day we heard this odd metallic banging. When it persisted, we peeked into the living room to find a young crow in the fireplace jumping and pecking at the firescreen in an effort to get out. We opened the back door, pulled the screen aside, and watched with some trepidation as he took flight toward the interior of our house and then, neat as you like, swooped about and whooshed out the back door just as if he'd been planning the whole display.

A day or two after we returned from our recent vacation, the crows--who brought off a clutch of three babies in our absence--were in an uproar, swooping around and cawing, and apparently dive-bombing the neighbor's dog. (They aren't quite large enough to carry the dog off and eat it. Unfortunately.)

The source of all this ballyhoo turned out to be another baby crow down the chimney. But this time the bird hadn't toppled all the way into the fireplace. There is a space back behind the flue door--a deep sort of trough that reaches down a foot or two behind the back wall of the fireplace. And in this trough there is, for unknown reasons, a hand-high gap in the brickwork which is perfect for a crow, or, I suppose, for any animal that can scrunch down into a hand-high ungraspable packet, to hide.

The entrance to our flue is quite narrow front-to-back. As it turns out, it is so narrow that when I kneel in the fireplace and try to reach up the flue, my arm makes it just to mid-bicep. So it fell to Pamela, who has rather daintier arms than I, to achieve a rescue, which she mamaged over the next ninety minutes (while I figdgeted and scratched and offered no-doubt invaluable advice.) I won't describe all the machinations, though I will note that a part of our rescue strategy involved pushing nearly all of our supply of towels into the weird trough so as to raise the floor, and then harrying the crow out onto the terrycloth platform.

After we finally managed to net the little bastard, he stood on my arm as if there wasn't much unusual. I suppose that from family legend he was expecting chicken and a blow-drying, but instead we took him out to his parents, and after he regained his bearings, he flew off and the five of them finally shut the hell up for the day. (One thing for sure: we need to put acreens over the tops of the damn chimneys.)

Now, if one put this sequence of events in a novel, it would mean something. Especially as it involves black birds. (And as it happened three times. The Goldilocks formula means that we have reached completion. Or, as Auric Goldfinger observes to James Bond, Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action. Three isn't just a crowd, it's a sort of storytelling touchstone.)

But what the heck does something laden with this sort of symbolism mean in real life?

And who is the protagonist? Me? Pamela?

The Crow?


Aliya Whiteley said...

I'm a believer in bird symbolism too. Particularly bird omens. Causes me no end of trouble.

And my budgie used to go crazy for the music of Queen. I wondered if the human race was created just to get to the point where it could come up with Queen, and therefore give the budgies something to headbang to.

Maggie Dana said...

Welcome back, David ... and the crow story is fabulous. I had a chimney 'lid' put on in a major hurry after a large raccoon landed in my fireplace. Fortunately, the doors were closed (it's a wood-burning insert) but he rattled the handles and since I've never actually shut myself in the fireplace, I have no idea it it can be opened from the inside.

I didn't stick around to find out, either. I raced outside with the phone book and my mobile and called a pest control expert. By the time he showed up, the raccoon had climbed back up the chimney but had left a very large and smelly calling card behind.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Aliya--

Bird omens. Yeah. If these were ravens rather than crows...

As to your budgie, are we talking "Another One Bites the Dust" Queen or "Bohemian Rhapsody Queen"? Or was the bird simply an all-around Queen fan?

David Isaak said...

Hey, Mags--

Wise decision. Raccoons ought not to be messed with.

Now if this event just spurred me to clap on a lid. But, no, instead I sit here pondering the symbolism.

Janet said...

Ha! My rescued baby crow was a total ingrate. Mind you, I didn't save it from drowning. And the parents kept screaming at it to go hide whenever I appeared, which confused it no end. So once it was capable of flying away, it never came back.

Just as well. What it did to my patio chairs is unprintable.

And I'm sorry, I can't help you with the symbolism. You'll just have to turn it into a fantasy story or magic realism or something.

I was three-quarters of the way through my own book before I realized that birds were symbolic. Dredged out of my subconscious no doubt, because I certainly didn't plan it.

Have you seen those videos of dancing cockatiels? Absolutely hilarious. They've got serious rhythm.

Frances said...

What an exciting time you people have in the USA. The only thing that ever fell down our chimney was soot (the chimney regularly caught fire,and while the children stood on the lawn and admired the flames, the firemen put out the fire and swept the chimney for free. You should try it). David's story sounds like Sing a Song of Sixpence meets Tom Kitten. And why shouldn't one mess with a raccoon? Never having met one, I know nothing about them, but they look rather cute.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Dancing cockatiels? I'll have to Google that...

As to your ungratedful crow--next time get out a blow-dryer. They like it even when they aren't wet!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Frances--

Raccoons are indeed cute. And smart.

They are also 1) Much larger than they seem, and 2) Very insistent on having their way, and 3) Pretty aggressive.

Picture a forty-five-pound cat. With hands. Not to be messed with.

David Thayer said...

Glad you're back on the mainland. Wasn't Stone the Crows a Scottish band? My grandfather carried a .22 rifle at all times in the event he spotted a crow.

David Isaak said...

Hi, David--

Stone the Crows is one of the all-time great names for a band.

I've heard that crows are quite adept at recognizing that a person has a rifle--and at communicating this danger to other crows. So I'm guessing that your grandfather didn't get off all that many successful shots...? (Probably made them fly away, though, which may have done the work he had in mind.)