Wednesday, September 12, 2007

`Quid Pro Crow'

For charm, wit and beauty, and for pure galling displays of joie de vivre, no bird can match the crow, and I’m pleased Kay Ryan shares my admiration, in “Felix Crow”:

“Crow school
is basic and
short as a rule –
just the rudiments
of quid pro crow
for most students.
Then each lives out
his unenlightened
span, adding his
bit of blight
to the collected
history of pushing out
the sweeter species;
briefly swaggering the
swagger of his
aggravating ancestors
down my street.
And every time
I like him
when we meet.”

I take the title of the poem, published in The Niagara River, to mean “Happy Crow,” an act of ornithological revisionism. For centuries, crows and other black birds have been unfairly associated with death. I’m always surprised by the fear and revulsion they inspire, a libel on the most intelligent of birds. One guy, while I was writing a story about crows, told me he hoped the West Nile virus wiped them out. He was not a farmer or gardener with a putative reason for his hatred. He just saw them as vermin, not among “the sweeter species.” On the other hand, I interviewed the owner of a pizzeria in upstate New York who had adopted a one-legged crow as a sort of qualified pet. He would stand behind his shop and whistle, and the bird would fly out of the adjoining woods and land on his arm, waiting to be fed pizza crust. The relationship was textbook symbiosis. Both parties benefited, both were happy.

Mark Twain recognized the happiness of crows, and linked their happiness to their intelligence. In 1896, while on a lecture tour in India, he was plagued by the birds, who stole his food and cigars. In Following the Equator: A Journal Around the World (1897), he tempered his irritation with admiration, and produced a tour de force of slowly accelerating comedy. Here’s Twain on crows:

“In the course of his evolutionary promotions, his sublime march toward ultimate perfection, he has been a gambler, a low comedian, a dissolute priest, a fussy woman, a blackguard, a scoffer, a liar, a thief, a spy, an informer, a trading politician, a swindler, a professional hypocrite, a patriot for cash, a reformer, a lecturer, a lawyer, a conspirator, a rebel, a royalist, a democrat, a practicer and propagator of irreverence, a meddler, an intruder, a busybody, an infidel, and a wallower in sin for the mere love of it. The strange result, the incredible result, of this patient accumulation of all damnable traits is, that he does not know what care is, he does not know what sorrow is, he does not know what remorse is, his life is one long thundering ecstasy of happiness, and he will go to his death untroubled, knowing that he will soon turn up again as an author or something, and be even more intolerably capable and comfortable than ever he was before.”

As portrayed by Twain, crows are gifted with the raffish style of a riverboat captain, the Duke and Dauphin, Melville’s Confidence Man and Twain himself.

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