When I was at Primary school, I remember being told a story about a fox and a crow. The teacher was reading it aloud while we sat on the floor. In the story the Crow is carrying a piece of food and in order to trick her into dropping it, the Fox tells her that he wants to hear her beautiful singing voice. The Crow caws, she drops the food, the fox steals it. The moral of the tale is don’t be fooled by flattery, yada, yada, yada.
At the point in the story where the fox pleads with the crow to sing her beautiful song, I remember the teacher looking over the top of the book and asking us with a half smile “does the crow have a beautiful voice?” . I didn’t get the joke. Everyone else seemed to know what was going on and they all said “no” and laughed.
I really didn’t get it.
To me the caws of a crow were one of the most beautiful sounds, and I listened to bird song a lot. I spent a lot of my childhood either close to trees or literally in the branches of trees, and I would listen carefully to bird song then try to mimic it back to the bird in the hope of making some sort of meaningful connection or even having a conversation!
To me, the crows caws, clacks, and knocks were sublime! So much variation, so much character – I just knew that they weren’t just singing, but having real conversation with each other and I ached to be able to join in.
Crows have featured a lot in my work in the last year. Not as much as I would have liked because it took a long time to get them right. My first collection of them was called The Story Tellers. I promised myself a series of nine, so far there have been four. I have also promised myself that I’ll keep one for myself. I love all of my dolls, but the making of crows has felt different. With most of the “human” dolls I make, they come from a place within me that needs to be expressed or seen. With the crows it comes from a need in me to feel closer to them. Of all the dolls I make, it’s the crows that seem the most “other” to me. My dolls are mostly self portraits in one way or another, but the crows are where I reach out and try to connect with something beyond myself.
Right now I’m finishing off a pair of hooded crows that I’ve had in mind for a while. Hooded crows have a particular place in my heart, as it was a hooded crow that I finally managed to make some small contact and connection with at a time when I was deeply lonely.
I didn’t even know hooded crows existed until I visited Norway for the first time.
They are the same size as typical crows, but instead of black feathers, their bodies are a soft, dove grey colour. Their heads and wings are black, hence the name “hooded”. One giant one seemed to spend a lot of time around the cabin I spent a lot of time in, and would screech and caw any time anyone would walk down the path. I would make soft, reassuring sounds, or gently announce my presence as it would swoop and squawk at me, and eventually after a while, it stopped cawing. It would come a little closer. It would look at me, trying to work out what I was and why I was telling it “it’s only me, calm down, I’m not going to bother you”.
It would still shriek at anyone else who dared walk down the path, but over time it recognised me and would accept me entering it’s “territory” and simply watch me. There’s something about a wild creature showing an interest in you that opens you up to the reality that we, as humans are not in charge. We often confuse the ability to appear dominant with genuine superiority. We build houses, and roads, we use the internet, and wear shoes and take selfies, but how well would we cope for just one day alone, naked and left to our own wits in a forest? The crows are part of a community. I can’t help feeling we as a species would be in a better position if we saw the rest of the world as our community and neighbours instead of our subordinates and inferiors.
The more time I spent among the crows, the more I realised how much they understood, how perfectly adapted they are to their world. Some nights I would sit outside on the moss and I could feel them gathering, anticipation building as more and more crows would arrive in the trees over head until it was difficult to see what was tree and what was crow, until the air felt electric, the way the atmosphere feels at the beginning of a festival, when everyone is gathered but the music still hasn’t begun, and then finally, as one they would all on some mysterious signal take flight and soar across the fjord towards whatever it was they’d been discussing above me.
Another time, I was walking along a different path with my dog, and a huge hooded crow was working on a large piece of food it had found. I spoke to it, as I now tend to do with all crows, and it took a good long look at my dog and I before hiding it’s food under a rock, then hopping on top of the rock to watch us pass by. I looked back to see it still watching us, then plucking it’s dinner out from under the rock again.
I get asked about the name The Pale Rook a lot. I tend to half tell the truth when I answer, that the image of a white corvid in the Gormenghast trilogy inspired me, as the bird was the eyes and ears and spy of my favourite character Gertrude. That’s true, but it’s not the whole truth. Part of it also came from sitting among those crows and wishing that for just one hour I could be one of them. And I’m pale, very pale, especially for a corvid!
When I first decided to make dolls, in fact, when I decided to sort of work my way back to making dolls by making “creatures”, the first thing I decided to make was a white crow. It wasn’t my most successful project, but it got me sewing and thinking again, although the crow I made sat mostly forgotten until I started making corvids again last year, this time ones with “human” bodies, somewhere between crow and human. It all came from that same need to be closer to something that I thought I’d never be able to fully connect to.
A few weeks ago I visited a wildlife sanctuary in Ayrshire in the south west of Scotland. It was a sort of hen (bachelorette) party for my sister who doesn’t really like hen parties, but loves animals. This isn’t a usual thing for the sanctuary, but my sister has been a fund raiser for their work for a long time and they made a special exception for her. I hadn’t really looked into the sanctuary too much before hand. I knew that they rescued injured wildlife, then released the animals back into the wild once they were healed. I was expecting foxes, hedgehogs, badgers – that sort of thing, and that’s what we saw. We visited the hospital full of young birds who’d fallen out of nests. We met a bald hedgehog who couldn’t be released because of how vulnerable she is without spines to protect her. We met two foxes who had been hand reared by a well meaning human, and could now not be released back into the wild until they were wary of humans again. We met seal pups who’d been abandoned or injured, and who we were reliably informed, were vicious wee buggers given half a chance.
After the tour we had some tea and coffee and fed the chickens that had followed us around the sanctuary for the last hour and a half. We were getting ready to leave when the member of staff who’d been showing us around told us to wait because she wanted to show us one more thing.
We followed her down a path through the woods to a collection of large aviaries with different types of birds who were there for one reason or another. I walked on ahead until I caught a flash of a long pale pink beak and snowy feathers. I knew his eyesight wouldn’t be great so I spoke gently to him to let him know I was coming as I edged towards the front of his huge aviary, hoping I wouldn’t frighten him, and from the back of his roost he flew straight towards me and landed inches from my face – an enormous, pure white crow.
His name is Jeremy.
There are times in life that I become hyper aware, knowing that this is something special that needs my full attention and that I am storing a memory that will be with me for the rest of my life. I don’t take photos, I don’t try to capture or hold the moment – I allow myself to experience it fully for as long as it lasts.
I don’t know what Jeremy and I must have looked like to the rest of the group, but they all held back and stayed well behind us, then they all wandered off to see the rest of the animals along the route. I remember someone behind me asking “is that your spirit animal?”. I’m not sure if I replied. I’m also not sure how long I lingered there with Jeremy, who hadn’t flown back to his perch yet, and was most likely wondering why the hell I wasn’t feeding him (I’m a romantic, but even I know he’d flown at me expecting his lunch!) , but eventually I pulled myself away from him and found the rest of the group.
I’m hoping it won’t be the last I see of him.
In Celtic and Gaelic mythology, a white crow has the same meaning as a “black sheep” – an outsider, one who doesn’t blend in with the group. Someone who can’t help but be seen for their inability to fit in.
That’s largely how I felt among humans in Norway, and on many levels how I felt for most of my childhood too. Maybe that’s why as a little girl I would climb trees and try to talk to birds. Why I would build them nests and hope they would move in and start a family.
While we were visiting the bird hospital at the sanctuary there was a large black crow in a cage in a corner eating a bit of a grisly lunch. He was recovering from an injury and was due to be released soon. It was upsetting to see him in a cage, but it was the closest I’d been to a crow since my time with the noisy hooded one on the path at the cabin. My sister saw me watching him, and I told her that in Norway I had “had a crow”, then quickly realised that I had never “had”, or indeed wanted to “have” a crow. They’re at least our equals and on rare occasions, if we respect them, we can share a special moment with them.