As the Crow Flies

 

words by willow defebaugh

photograph by daniel shea

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an aerial view of the latest events in climate and culture—and how they all fit together.

words by willow defebaugh

photograph by daniel shea

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“Grief might be, in some ways, the long aftermath of love, the internal work of knowing, holding, more fully valuing what we have lost.”

Mark Doty

In one of the most widely known pieces of American poetry, “The Raven,” Edgar Allan Poe tells the tale of a man lamenting his lost love, Lenore. In this macabre story about grappling with grief, a talking raven appears, repeatedly reminding the lover of what will no longer be and driving him further into the depths of despair with the simple phrase: “nevermore.”

 

Thanks to works like Poe’s, many of us carry macabre connotations of ravens, crows and other members of the corvid family —but did you know that they are incredibly social and cunning creatures? When it comes to brain-to-body ratio, they are on par with dolphins and primates, capable of solving complex problems. Among their most remarkable traits is their memory: they can remember specific human faces and places, and even pass along ancestral recollections and information on to their offspring.

 

These qualities are reflected in many world mythologies, in which corvids are often portrayed as psychopomps—creatures or spirits that escort the dead to the afterlife. In a number of Pacific Northwest Indigenous traditions, the raven is tied to creation stories. Norse lore often depicts the ever-wise Odin flanked by two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, whose names mean “thought” and “memory.” In the Yoga Vasistha, an old sage assumes the form of a crow to recount the history of the Earth. Others have associated them with omens and disease, being that they are carrion birds.

 

One behavior of corvid birds that has baffled scientists for years—and is fitting for our more morbid associations—is how they treat the dead. When a dead crow is spotted, dozens flock to and surround it. They have even been spotted placing sticks and other objects on the deceased, holding a funeral of sorts. As far as we can tell, these are displays of mourning. Crows form strong bonds (they mate for life), meaning that any loss is one that could be deeply felt.

 

In a recent study, scientists found that a particular part of a crow’s brain lights up upon seeing a fallen feathered friend, recalling memories associated with it. It is the same place that lights up in our brains, the hippocampus. As lead researcher John Marzluff shared: “When you see its brain is using the same parts of the brain to remember things that we do, or to learn fearful situations like we do, maybe it gives you a little more sympathy to the bird, or maybe kinship.”

 

At the time of writing this newsletter, one year after the pandemic irrevocably altered our world, 2.6 million people have died of the coronavirus. It is an unfathomable number, one that weighs on us as we begin to reopen. As we move into this afterlife, the raven and the crow remind us that love and loss are not specific to our species, that they are universal. That they don’t just make us human, they make us alive. That perhaps the most important thing we can do is to remember—not only those we have lost, but the love we share with each other and all things.

 

“As the crow flies” means the shortest path between two points. When it comes to healing, the only path I know is straight to the heart of it: running boldly in the direction of our grief, which is our love. Joanna Macy says that this is the most integral work we can do if we are to heal our planet. Perhaps Poe’s winged visitor was not an agent of torment, but of acceptance—there to teach him that there is no going back, that the only way forward is through. Maybe the raven really is wise, a keeper of life’s most simple and sacred secret: it goes on.

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