Tuesday, February 19, 2008

As empty as the sky overhead

Around my house as dusk approaches, swarms of crows gather in the still-empty tree branches a block over from our street. It's something out of Hitchcock's The Birds as they caw and cluster louder and closer as darkness approaches, entirely filling the branches on a huge number of trees, like some kind of sinister leaves.

I have no idea where they are all day. I've never seen them in the malls and I can't imagine they go to the library (they have no pockets in which to put their library cards and are unable to carry away books they might check out, such as Erica Jong's Fear of Flying).

I'm fascinated with how they all 'know' to gather for the evening and where they'll be doing this. There's a reasonable amount of tumult as they jockey for empty and unoccupied branches at first, like we might do, and then as stragglers arrive, there's some shifting of contents as previous arrivals make a hole so that the latecomers have someplace to spend the night. Slowly, and sometimes it's more slowly than others, they quiet down (I don't understand if they're talking or what it is the cawing is supposed to signal-much like I'm never sure how much of what I say is necessary speech and how much is just placeholding in the queue of humanity) just as the night falls.

I'm usually gone before they get up so Saturday, when I was home and between projects, I heard them long before I realized what it was I listening to. All too slowly, but raucously, the tree branches started to show daylight as crows awakened either by dawn or a neighbor took wing though not before adding to the cacophony. Added a whole new meaning to the idea of an 'Early Bird' special for breakfast though with the ground as hard as it still is (and this has been a mild winter, imho) and the air temperatures turning standing water to ice, I'm not sure how they survive (but they do).

Over three decades ago, while in the USAF, I spent a year at Sondrestrom AB, Greenland which is ninety miles north of Arctic Circle and with more foxes and ravens (crows, actually, with a wing span you measured in feet) than people. The birds figured out where the chow hall was and hung out on the power lines across the street. It was a rite of passage, of sorts, that the new guys huddled together at tables in the chow hall wearing our parkas (hoods down indoors, of course) would be targeted by the old hands for a bit of fun. The latter would break up pieces of bread and drop the chunks into the parka hoods. As the new guys left the chow hall, if they forgot for even a moment to put up their hoods, the ravens would swoop down and land on your shoulder to eat the bread out of your hood. What a hoot, though not so much for the new guys, at least not until other new guys showed up and we could do it to them.

Someone came up with the brilliant idea of hitting the Class VI store, the liquor store, and buying a bottle of gin and then convincing the Danish cooks who made some of the most fantastic chow we would ever eat to give them a couple of unsliced loaves of fresh-baked bread and remove the crust from all sides of the bread and soak the loaf in the gin. Then you broke up the 'super-charged' loaves and threw the pieces on the snow in front of the chow hall and watched the ravens land, eat their fill, and fly back back up to the wires where the alcohol would work its way through their blood streams within minutes.

You'd watch as the ravens started to rock and wobble, almost imperceptibly as they got their drunk on, until they were so loaded they literally couldn't stand and would fall from the wires. They'd land, more often than not, headfirst in the snowbanks and you'd see these two bird legs sticking up from the drifts. After time had passed and they started to sober up, you'd see their feet start to twitch, and they'd struggle to get out of the snowbanks and fly back up onto the wires where they'd wait for the next shift of USAF zoomies to leave the chow hall. And round went the gossip. Had AA had a chapter, both Heckyl and Jekyll could have been in it.
On the other hand, when I think about the gin I didn't use on the bread, it's amazing I didn't see an elephant fly.
-bill kenny

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