Meditations on crowing

Vancouver Crow Sunset

Vancouver, BC, has many spectacular natural sights. Views we have in abundance; go to any high place and you can gawk at the mountains, the harbour, the bridges, and sometimes even Georgia Strait and the misty archipelago of the Gulf Islands. But one of the most beautiful encounters you can have with nature in the city happens in a non-scenic industrial neighbourhood of central Burnaby.

At dusk on a clear day, look up at the sky and you can see them flying in from every direction: crows, thousands of crows. They converge on the neighbourhood around the intersection of approximately Still Creek Avenue and Gilmore Avenue, and land everywhere: parking lots, fences, power lines, railroad tracks, and of course, the thin green strip of trees and bushes that remain of what was once marshland. Before business parks and warehouses began eating away at the wetlands surrounding Still Creek, this was their nightly roost. Crows being the smart, adaptable creatures they are, they have just made use of the new structures people have put in their former home.

This scene has often been compared to the classic Hitchcock movie The Birds. In this live version, the crows are non-malevolent but I still can’t help feeling, as I pedal past on my bike at sunset, that I am a visitor in their world. They make a terrific noise and there are lots of birds swooping overhead, more and more arriving and jostling for a spot to land, but they take no notice of me.

There’s a comfort of being alone among the crowd. They are too busy doing their bird things and calling out to another and sorting out their own highly particular social order to be bothered by one insignificant human. They don’t care if I gawk in amazement at their sheer numbers and the beauty of this phenomenon. They don’t require my attention; they will do this mysterious thing that they do, every single night in this particular place, whether I notice or not.

Conventional wisdom would have it that I would want to stand out for being different. Maybe I should wave my arms or try to shout out about the din. But what good would that do? At best, I would use up my own precious energy only for the purpose of getting their attention. At worst, the crows would swoop down, maybe even dive bomb or attack. Why would I want that? And who are we to each other anyhow? Just a couple of species who happen to be in the same space (kind of like high school, or the Internet).

With all the birds crowing to one another, the noise is deafening. You cannot even hear the traffic on the freeway only a couple hundred metres away, and it’s rush hour. It is a tunnel of bird noise, and even if I could pick out any specific voice, I would not understand the language they’re speaking. Like I said, I’m just a visitor here. But altogether, the sight and the sound and the fleeting light in the winter sky reach out and speak to me.

I want to linger, grab my camera, capture the moment, but no shaky video with bad sound can give you the sensation of being there. (And I actually took the photo you see here on an another jaunt through the area, when the birds seemed to have settled down to their places.) And I wanted to just be in the moment for once in all my overly connected life.

At one time, the Internet represented a second life, where you could create a persona of your choice complete with a pseudonym. Now, the web of social media is intricately woven into your real life and comes complete with multiple dire warnings about the harm you could do to your image by posting the wrong pictures or an ill-thought-out update. Nothing is private, they say; the settings are just window dressing. And over it all hangs the sinister implication of digital spying. I personally don’t know who would be interested in my life online, but there I am, squawking away anyway, along with the rest of the world.

Personally, I liked that none of these thousands of crows were trying to get my attention individually. Because when crows want you to notice them, it is not pleasant and, as Hitchcock demonstrated, can be downright scary. People who try to get attention from the crowd can be equally annoying and scary in their quest to get in your eyeballs, get clicks and shares and likes, get “mindshare,” get you to do something. (Those clickbaiting headlines from Upworthy come to mind.) You’re constantly building new shields to deflect crows that just won’t quit.

I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, as of course, part of my job is being a copywriter. I write things that are designed to persuade and inform people about the things clients want them to know. And I am ever aware of the problem of bringing attention to this ad, this brochure, this website, within the cacophonous din of a million other messages and a thousand other concerns the real live humans we want to reach have to contend with. Will we reach them by shouting louder than the others or by being flashier and bolder or by interrupting their attention to bring them These Important Messages? Hmmm. Probably not.

But maybe, just maybe, if we can be honestly together in the same space, there is a chance of reaching through the noise and having a moment to think and to meditate and to feel something real.

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