Thursday, July 20, 2017

Counting Mountain Crows

Image: Fine Art Museums of San Francisco
When I was exploring the craggy little Snowdonia peak of Yr Arddu after a typewritten climbing guide to the mountain’s diminutive little cliffs, written by Showell Styles, had fallen into my hands, my visits were inevitably greeted by a posse of raucous crows who-as crows generally do- were just hanging around the crags before taking off and wheeling around the sky before landing on a nearby outcrop and lettering rip. 'The clapperclaw of crows’ was Edward Abbey’s poetic description of their vocal powers. Of course the correct collective name for a group of crows is ‘A murder of Crows’, and sadly, this reflects society’s negative view of corvids in general, as dark, menacing necromancers. Black as coal and with a refined taste in rotting flesh.

British folklore had long condemned corvids to the dark margins of myth and imagination, long before Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Ghastly grim and ancient Raven’. Even Ted Hughes, a poet of rare perception and respect for the natural world, painted the crow as the ‘King of Carrion’....’His palace is of skulls. His crown is the last splinters of the vessel of life. His throne is the scaffold of bones, the hanged thing’s Rack and final stretcher. His robe is the black of the last blood. His kingdom is empty’.

Referring to ‘Crow: From the life and songs of the crow’. Professor Neil Roberts, Emeritus professor of English Literature at the University of Sheffield’......

‘Crow holds a uniquely important place in Hughes oeuvre.  It heralds the ambitious second phase of his work, lasting roughly from the late sixties to the late seventies, when he turned from direct engagement with the natural world to unified mythical narratives and sequences. It was his most controversial work: a stylistic experiment which abandoned many of the attractive features of his earlier work, and an ideological challenge to both Christianity and humanism. Hughes wrote Crow, mostly between 1966 and 1969, after a barren period following the death of Sylvia Plath. He looked back on the years of work on Crow as a time of imaginative freedom and creative energy, which he felt that he never subsequently recovered. He described Crow as his masterpiece.’

Despite the traditional misplaced fear of crows and those within the Corvus genus- Ravens, Jackdaws, Magpies and Rooks- in recent years there has been a marked upturn in the amount of attention and respect these birds are now receiving. Acknowledged as possibly THE most intelligent of bird species and one of the few capable of using logic and tools to solve problems, the crow and the Corvus clan in general are finally losing their sinister image and gaining a new legion of admirers.

Perhaps those in the outdoor community can claim to be in the forefront of the crows rehabilitation, given how we’ve shared the mountains with them for as long as man has frequented the high places. For climbers in particular, the sight of a crow perched on a nearby rock. Casually surveying his mountain kingdom, cannot fail to diffuse tension and lift the spirits. This extract from Guido Rey in ‘The Matterhorn’, written in 1946 in the immediate aftermath of one of the darkest periods in mankind’s history exemplifies this perfectly.

The Crows of the Matterhorn

The crows of the Matterhorn are strange,large birds with jet-black shiny feathers, with long bills and beautiful blood-red claws. They are a strange tribe, who live up in the heights in summer, concealed in unexplored recesses on inaccessible precipices of the Zmutt and Furggen faces. They are well disposed towards the few men who climb the mountain; they know they are harmless folk and much too busy with other matters to wish to go after them.

When the weather is fine, they watch from above, parties of climbers as they make their toilsome ascent; they fly down to meet them and circle about them, as dolphins in the sea swim about in the wake of a ship. If the weather be threatening, they utter their sad, unpleasing cry, as if to tell me of the coming tempest. They restlessly come and go, and beat up against the wind with their strong wings,sometimes hovering almost motionless in the air; then they dash headlong into the mist with folded wings, dropping like stones to flee the storm.

As will be discerned by the titles and imagery associated with these blogs, my fondness and respect for this most attractive, entertaining and beguiling of bird species, echoes the sentiments expressed by Guido Rey above.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this celebration of crowdom!

    You might know Norman Nicholson's play, Old Man of the Mountains (1946), which has the part of Raven, a mouthpiece for Nicholson's christian beliefs but also pone casting a very prescient eye over the region. Raven warns the villagers about pollution and land exploitation:

    The Hills which were your altars have become your middens

    The Becks which were your temples have become your sewers. (Nicholson 1946, p.12)

    Even for non believers, the play is a wonderful evocation of Cumbria and a canny piece of future-gazing.