Co-written by Rachel Olivia O’Connor and “Billy”
“…nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” — the concluding words of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ God’s Grandeur
Our good friend, Richard Martin Oxman (“Ox”), who has socially-conscious/environmentally-conscious pieces posted on www.countercurrents.org quite often, recently published a pamphlet spotlighting activist lessons to be learned from birds; his American Must Crow Anew is a good example of one to glance at for the purposes of this article, typical of the pamphlet’s contents.
From Catallus and Chaucer to Robert Browning and James Wright, poets have long treated birds as powerful metaphors for beauty, escape, transcendence, and divine expression. And in Ox’s pamphlet, selections from more than a hundred classic and contemporary poems remind us of our intimate connection to the “bright wings” (referred to in the Hopkins poem above) around us.
Here we give the reader a single point for kind consideration, representing a crucial concern drawn from the pamphlet.
Crows and ravens are known as songbirds, despite their hoarse calls. The Common Raven is the largest of all songbirds. It is found throughout the Northern Hemisphere — from Arctic to desert environments — and is — if you ask virtually anyone with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology, Wildlife Biology, Zoology or Ecology (who is interested in birds) what the smartest bird is, they’re likely to say that the Common Raven is a decent candidate for that honor. Or at least, not disagree with your saying it’s the smartest of birds.
But what exactly are the criteria that anyone would use to categorize a given bird that way? Are the criteria for judgement on that score a counterpart to how human beings determine the same capacity in their own species? Weak, highly suspect?
But… back to the birds. Why are Common Ravens considered so smart? One of the main reasons is that they can imitate human speech, and learn to talk better than many parrots. Also, in many cultures — from Tibet to Greece — they’ve been looked at as messengers of the gods; some say they were involved in the creation of the world. They’re playful in an intriguing sense too, do inexplicable things with ants, trick animals out of their food, and live a very long life (up to 40 years in captivity!), make very sophisticated non-verbal signals, show empathy, and clearly demonstrate unique adaptability. There’s more, and we’ll share additional details with anyone who wants to write to us. However, I think it’s time to conclude with the main point I want to make here and now, which has to do with the omen part of our title.
We chose to focus on the raven here, in part, because it frequently is cited as a bird of evil omen, carrying prophetic significance.
One of the primary points made in the pamphlet cited above is that in the realm of songbirds one never finds any creatures attempting to force others to embrace their singular song.
Humans do exactly that with their wars abroad. And with their domestic political squabbling, expecting those with different points of view to sing the same tune.
For the birds? Yes and no.
Rachel Olivia O’Connor is a freelance journalist. She can be reached at email@example.com. “Billy” — a professor who wishes to remain anonymous — teaches at Lehman College.