A somewhat grainy photo of my four oldest children taken at the Point Loma Lighthouse in 2007, not long after we moved to San Diego. The Pacific was still quite new to them. When I coined the term “tidal homeschooling,” we lived in Virginia and the image was entirely figurative—but when I think back to those early tidal-learning days, this pic is the one I see.
I remember writing here long ago about how my favorite category of post was connections. The serendipitous links of thought we encounter when something we’re reading or experiencing echoes or relates to some earlier conversation, book, film, experience.
Today, for example: we read another Hauge poem (“Winter Morning”) and had a really rich discussion of how much is going on in those four simple lines—a discussion that incorporated some of the conversation we had in the comments here about yesterday’s poem. We talked about the way Hauge uses simple, crisp, concrete images (frosted windowpanes, the glow of a good dream, a woodstove “pour[ing] out its warmth/ from a wood block it had enjoyed the whole night”) to describe a moment, and something much bigger than the moment. And from that rather animated discussion we jumped to Linda Gregg’s “Art of Finding” essay:
I am astonished in my teaching to find how many poets are nearly blind to the physical world. They have ideas, memories, and feelings, but when they write their poems they often see them as similes. To break this habit, I have my students keep a journal in which they must write, very briefly, six things they have seen each day—not beautiful or remarkable things, just things. This seemingly simple task usually is hard for them. At the beginning, they typically “see” things in one of three ways: artistically, deliberately, or not at all. Those who see artistically instantly decorate their descriptions, turning them into something poetic: the winter trees immediately become “old men with snow on their shoulders,” or the lake looks like a “giant eye.” The ones who see deliberately go on and on describing a brass lamp by the bed with painful exactness. And the ones who see only what is forced on their attention: the grandmother in a bikini riding on a skateboard, or a bloody car wreck.
But with practice, they begin to see carelessly and learn a kind of active passivity until after a month nearly all of them have learned to be available to seeing—and the physical world pours in. Their journals fill up with lovely things like, “the mirror with nothing reflected in it.” This way of seeing is important, even vital to the poet, since it is crucial that a poet see when she or he is not looking—just as she must write when she is not writing. To write just because the poet wants to write is natural, but to learn to see is a blessing. The art of finding in poetry is the art of marrying the sacred to the world, the invisible to the human.
Okay, here’s the thing. I had planned to read this excerpt of Gregg’s essay, and to introduce a new practice for the four of us—Huck, Rilla, Scott, and me. We have a spiral-bound sketchbook that, at intervals, we use as a shared family journal. In 2020 it was the whole family chiming in with quips, sketches, and interesting tidbits. It went dormant last year, and when the Linda Gregg passage resurfaced in my Readwise review over the holidays, I decided to appropriate the journal for this practice. Maybe not daily, but several times a week, we’ll jot down things we’ve seen or heard.
But weeks have passed since I reread the passage, and I’d forgotten that last line—the “marrying of the sacred to the world, the invisible to the human.” That’s exactly what we’d just been talking about with the Hauge poem, and what we talked about yesterday. The way he expresses a single image that speaks vividly both as a literal description (in a way that makes your breath catch) and as a reflection on some aspect of human experience. “Marrying the sacred to the world” is what Hauge does best.
So: part intention, part serendipity. The best kind of high-tide morning.
A postscript added after I made today’s recording—listening to the Linda Gregg passage read aloud, I got to “the art of finding” and went Oh of course! And made a note to let tomorrow’s poem be Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” Another connection.
I’m circling back to yesterday’s topic. The bird clock chirped before I got to the best kind of connections! A few hours later, laughing with Huck and Rilla over a math problem, I knew I’d want to revisit the subject today.
We’ve been doing the enrichment pages of Math-U-See’s Pre-Algebra book together, the three of us. Side by side on the old green couch—a housewarming gift from Scott’s parents in 1999 when we (then a family of four) moved from our little Queens apartment to a one-bedroom-bigger place on Long Island. That sofa has seen some life, let me tell you. Our first Christmas here in Portland, my parents gave us a nice new Ikea sectional—finally enough comfy seating for the whole family—but my entire crew refused to hear of the removal of the old sofa. It lives now under the windows in our dining area, a favorite place to flop and read or listen to music.
So: the green sofa, a page of puzzle problems on my lap, Huck and Rilla on either side. Huck had sharpened all the pencils right after breakfast, so I had a nice fresh point. The final problem on the page elicited a gasp from Rilla. That gasp—the inrush of breath that signals a connection has just been made—is my chief delight as a homeschooling mom. And in the connection of ideas, we connect with each other.
Huge chunks of this blog are devoted to chronicling those moments. My own notebooks are full of them—connections the kids have made between this book, that game, this show, that moment of hilarity in the kitchen; and my own connections too, the synthesis of ideas and images gathered on my greedy, plate-loaded-at-the-buffet, rabbit-trailing, metaphor-mixing lifelong learning adventure.
Our math problem had reminded her of a tidbit she’d puzzled over many times as a little girl. In the book, Scarecrow and friends are plotting an escape from a flock of jackdaws. They have a handful of wishing pills but not enough to go around—not, says the Tin Woodman, unless they can count to seventeen by twos. The sawhorse declares that’s easy to do, if you just start counting at “a half of one.”
Rilla remembered being extremely confused by the sawhorse’s logic. She could never figure out how he arrived at that solution. While we puzzled it out together (spoiler: he cheated), I absently doodled on the page. The kids laughed at me—this, too, is a longrunning point of connection for us and amusement for them. It’s extremely hard for me to focus on what anyone is saying if I can’t doodle or stitch or do something fiddly with my hands. (One reason I always encourage kids to draw, or play with Sculpey or beeswax, or crochet while I’m reading to them.)
And I guess the quiet pauses while kids work out math problems are another place I need the help of a pencil. The margins of their math books are full of nonsense drawings. I have a shelf full of elementary Math-U-See instruction books I can’t resell because I’ve scribbled all over them!
The black curagh working slowly through this world of grey, and the soft hissing of the rain gave me one of the moods in which we realise with immense distress the short moment we have left us to experience all the wonder and beauty of the world.
This week Beanie and I reached the J. M. Synge episode of The Irish Identity. The quote above found me at the perfect time, as I neared the end of Emily St. John Mandel’s lovely Station Eleven, and on the day the President announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement.
Even after the people of the south island, these men of Inishmaan seemed to be moved by strange archaic sympathies with the world. Their mood accorded itself with wonderful fineness to the suggestions of the day, and their ancient Gaelic seemed so full of divine simplicity that I would have liked to turn the prow to the west and row with them for ever.
Today I forgot to blog first; it’s nearly bedtime. 🙂
Melanie has begun a link-up for sharing daily learning notes, always an engaging topic (if you’re anything like me). I used to have an entire side-blog for my daily notes, and then a different one, and then a different one. These days I’m tracking things on paper, but I do like to compile some of our best resources and rabbit trails here pretty often, as you know.
Selvi asked in the comments the other day why we were working on memorizing the English monarchs, because I’ve mentioned that several times. The main reason, as I replied to her, is because they make very handy pegs for hanging other historical events on. So often in our history, literature, and science reading we come across some incident involving Great Britain and we used to always say, “Who was king then? Or was it queen?” So we set about learning the list (and American presidents as well, but that was easier because these kids grew up on the Singin’ Smart CD with its infectious tune for the presidents) and it turned into a really fun family accomplishment. Oh the triumph now when we can all get through the Horrible Histories song without a hitch! 😉
Our various readings continue to interconnect in satisfying ways. We spent a couple of weeks on Wordsworth (you don’t leave this house until you know a good bit about the Romantics, that’s just the way it is) and are reading Coleridge this week, and that has created excellent crossover with our readings about the French Revolution. Except a MOST UNFORTUNATE THING happened and that is: while (continuing on in the juggernaut of world history) reading aloud about Napoleon, my tongue got twisted and his name came out BonaFART. Never, never, never shall I be allowed to live this down. Never, never, never shall I be permitted to read another word about him without a ripple of giggles across the room. Waterloo can’t come fast enough, believe me. I might have to move to Elba myself.
ANYWAY, back to Coleridge. We began a discussion of “Frost at Midnight” today, which is one of my most beloved poems. It’s a good many years since I’ve lived where there’s frost, but I still look at a winter sky and inhale the cold air and think of silent icicles quietly shining to the quiet moon. We found so much to discuss in the first stanza that that’s as far as we got for now—and the best is yet to come.
Today during our after-lunch block (that’s when I focus my attention on Huck and Rilla), we did cornmeal letters. Uppercase printing for Huck and lowercase cursive for Rilla. This was a new activity for Huck and he enjoyed it tremendously. (And ate a whole lot of dry cornmeal, gah.) He’s not yet shown much interest in writing or drawing—loves to paint big swirls and stripes of color, but crayons interest him not at all—but we have a Montessori Letter Shapes app that mimics this kind of tactile finger-tracing, and he used to play that quite a lot. When I put the plate of cornmeal in front of him today and showed him what we were going to do, he asked, politely puzzled, “But how do we reset it?” No reset button, you see. Oh my digital-era child.
He got the hang of the analog method pretty quick. 😉
“Isaacson takes the reader on a leisurely, respectful tour of buildings around the world: churches, houses, museums, lighthouses, all kinds of structures, from the humble to the magnificent. In simple, straightforward prose he discusses various architectural concepts such as the impact of building materials, the interplay of light and color, and the significance of roof shape. His stunning photographs turn even the roughest earthen hut into a work of art. His lyrical text helps us see in the pictures what we might otherwise have missed:
‘These buildings are part of the Shaker Village at Sabbathday, Maine. On an afternoon in late winter they are warm and creamy, but in December, shadows thrown at them make them look haunted. A building only a few yards away fades into the land on a hazy morning.'”
Round Buildings, Square Buildings was edited by my first boss in publishing, the great Stephanie Spinner. It was near completion by the time I came on board; I don’t think I did much more than look over galleys and jacket copy, and probably put through the request for Mr. Isaacson’s author copies. It’s one of those books I sat at my desk reading, unable to believe my good fortune: This is my job now; I’m getting paid to read.
Before Round Buildings I hadn’t done much real seeing of architecture. There were buildings I loved: the sandstone administration building (formerly a convent) of my first college, Loretto Heights, with its red tower soft-edged against a blue sky, and inside, a gorgeous mosaic floor—tiny tiles set into place by wagon-training nuns, so the story went. But even there, I was drawn more to story than to form. Most of the buildings that captured my imagination, pre-Isaacson, lived in books: Green Gables, the House o’ Dreams, Jane’s Lantern Hill house with its “lashings of magic.” The Muskoka cabin. (No one does houses better than Montgomery.) Plumfield. Juniper’s cottage. Miss Suzy’s tree-house with its acorn cups. Vicky Austin’s grandfather’s house-in-a-converted-stable with the stalls full of books. A great many English houses in a great many English novels.
But most of the time, my eye was drawn more to nature than to man’s edifices. I had next to no vocabulary for understanding architecture. Isaacson changed that in a paragraph with his description of the creamy walls of the Taj Mahal changing colors as the sun moved across them—the very passage I read with Beanie and Rose this morning. He writes about harmony and you find yourself looking for it everywhere you go. He made me see my world differently—just as John Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic changed how I looked at just about everything else: power lines, rain gutters, a sculpture garden, the line at the DMV. The way Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain changed the way I see faces.
Clicking through these old posts, I see I’ve made a connection between these three books before. They’re transformative, all three.
Funny also to see in the old Stilgoe post I linked above, “Way Leads on to Way,” that I’d been reading Fifty Famous Stories Retold* to Beanie that year—in March, 2008, when she was seven years old. And now here’s Rilla seven, and I’m reading it to her. (Today’s tale: Androclus and the Lion. It drew cheers, and a narration with gusto. Because LION.) I have to laugh: way doesn’t just lead on to way; sometimes it leads right back full circle. I didn’t choose Round Buildings for the older girls and Fifty Famous Stories for the seven-year-old at the same time—again—on purpose; I guess it’s just that I’ve been doing this long enough now that I know what works for us, and these things have worked time and again. It did strike me this morning, reading the Isaacson, that the Stilgoe might be a satisfying read for Jane and Rose right about now.
A book arrived yesterday that made me giddy. Scott saw me squealing over it and wanted to know what all the excitement was about. I tried to think how best to explain it to him.
“Okay, imagine that John Lennon and Elvis Presley were pen-pals. Say they had a lively correspondence, letters flying back and forth for years and years. Now imagine that this book is a collection of those letters.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Who are they really?”
I sighed happily. “Katharine White and Elizabeth Lawrence.”
Scott: “Um…?” But he knows me well. “Gardening?”
“Yes. Only my two favorite gardening writers EVER.”
“Like you had to tell me that.”
Everything about this book makes me smile. Editor Emily Herring Wilson’s introduction begins,
Gardeners are often good letter writers, and whether they write to describe what’s blooming today or to remember a flower from childhood, their letters are efforts to preserve memory. After they have put away tools in the shed, they write letters as a way to go on working in the garden. Because it is impossible to achieve the kind of perfection they dream of, they try to come to terms with their dreams by talking back and forth about their successes and failures….
Katharine S. White was, of course, the esteemed New Yorker editor whose occasional gardening columns are collected in the first horticultural tome ever to win my heart: Onward and Upward in the Garden. I had only to read her opening essay, the famous 1958 column that both celebrates and gently mocks gardening catalogs, critiquing them like works of literature, to know that here was a kindred spirit. Evidently Miss Elizabeth Lawrence, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic Southern garden writer (whose Gardening for Love I quoted the other day), felt the same spark of recognition. In May of 1958, Elizabeth wrote Katharine White a letter to say how much she’d enjoyed the New Yorker column, adding,
I asked [my friend] Mrs. Lamm if you were Mrs. E. B. White, and she said you were. So please tell Mr. E. B. that he has three generations of devoted readers in this family. My mother’s favorites were the one about leaving the mirror in the apartment vestibule, and the one about homemade bread. My niece adores Charlotte’s Web.
The mirror and bread essays (“Removal” and “Fro-Joy”) can be found in E. B. White’s One Man’s Meat, and if you know me at all, you know this sort of interwoven rabbit-trailing fills me with utter glee.
That first letter from Elizabeth to Katharine is fun, folksy, and smart, full of suggestions for other garden catalogs Mrs. White might enjoy. Several of her recommendations became fodder for subsequent ‘Onward and Upward’ columns. For nearly twenty years, until Katharine’s death in 1977, the two women wrote back and forth. So far, I have only read the first two of these letters. There must be hundreds of them in this book. I’m positively aflutter over the idea of such riches.
I didn’t get farther than the first letter last night because I found I had to interrupt it in the middle and go reread the Katharine White essay. Which led to another googlesome rabbit trail to see if any of the old catalogs she references can be read online. The Roses of Yesterday and Today catalog, whose author at the time, a Mr. Will Tillotson, had an “informative and occasionally rhapsodic” style that charmed Mrs. White no end, is still around—though Mr. Tillotson died in 1957, a fact Mrs. White adds in a sorrowful postscript at the end of her essay. The 1959 catalog seems to have been reprinted some years back. In her essay, Katharine quotes extensively from the 1955 and 1956 catalogs, which she says she borrowed from a friend, adding, “I must not keep them long, because though she has never bought a Tillotson rose, she reads Tillotson every night before she goes to sleep.”
Mrs. White is similarly fond of Amos Pettingill, the “peppery” and “highly distinctive” persona holding forth in the pages of the old White Flower Farm catalogs. When I first read Onward and Upward as a college student (avoiding my English lit assignments, no doubt), I immediately sent away for a copy of the current White Flower catalog, even though I had 1) no garden; 2) no money; 3) no business poring over garden catalogs when I ought to have been plowing through my coursework. I can’t remember now whether Amos Pettingill was still dispensing wisdom in its pages. If he was, he had a new ghostwriter by then, since the original Amos, Mr. William Harris—a writer for Fortune magazine (and, with his wife, founder of White Flower Farm)—died while I was still in middle school. The welcome letter at the current White Flower website is signed “Amos Pettingill,” so someone is keeping up the tradition, I see.
Here’s an interesting bit of trivia I learned from the footnotes of Onward and Upward: William Harris’s wife was Jane Grant, a New York Times writer whose first husband was Harold Ross—Katharine White’s boss at The New Yorker. When Katharine wrote that essay, she had no idea she was singing the praises of her boss’s ex-wife’s new husband. Having just learned that Harold Ross was “one of the original members of the Algonquin Round Table,” I can’t help but imagine how Dorothy Parker must have chuckled wickedly when she heard. Because of course Dorothy Parker would have heard.
Elizabeth Lawrence’s taste in garden literature ran in a more down-home direction. Her Gardening for Love (polished and published after her death by Allen Lacy—the third name on my Top Three Garden Writers list) focuses on the advertisements of country farmers and farm wives in agricultural market bulletins. I tried very hard, one summer during graduate school, to track down some of these old bulletins, but that was before the Google and my search was unsatifactory. You can probably get them on eBay now, but I haven’t looked.
Ha, I couldn’t resist, I’ve just gone and looked. Not at eBay: a Google search for “market bulletins” turned up a link to the Louisiana Dept. of Agriculture’s current market bulletin, which you can download just like that. The ads—to which I turned immediately, since those were Miss Lawrence’s special fascination—read exactly like the ones she quotes from the ’50s and ’60s.
“Belinda’s dream rose, knock roses, 6 colors, drift ground cover roses, Little John bottle brush kaleidoscope abelia, Lady Banks roses, Shishi camellia, in 3-gal. containers, $10-$18/1; 30 varieties azaleas-camellias, $4-$25/1. L— C—, Husser, Tangipahoa Parish.”
This very same Louisiana Market Bulletin makes numerous appearances in Gardening for Love. And I know this post is already a giant game of Six Degrees of Separation (where perhaps E. B. White stands in for Kevin Bacon?), but there’s another literary connection worth mentioning: it was Elizabeth Lawrence’s friend Eudora Welty who first introduced her to the market bulletins.
“Years ago Eudora Welty told me about the old ladies who sell flowers through the mail,” writes Miss Lawrence in the opening chapter of Gardening for Love. “She put my name on the mailing list.”
Like Eudora’s novels, the market bulletins are a social history of the Deep South. Through them I know the farmers and their dogs, their horses and mules, and the pedigrees of their cattle. I wonder whether the widow with no family ties found a home with an elderly couple needing someone to take care of them; whether the bachelor with no bad habits found a congenial job where the hunting and fishing were good; whether puppies got homes and lost dogs were found. And I wonder who bought the little farm with the pecan trees and good clear well water.
Most of all I like to think about the hard-working farm women who are never too tired, when their farm work is done, to cultivate their flowers gardens. They always find time to gather seeds, to dig and pack plants, and to send them off with friendly letters. To all parts of the country they send them off—yard plants, houseplants, and window plants. Reading the flower lists is like reading poetry, for the flowers are called by their sweet country names, many of them belonging to Shakespeare and the Bible.
Elizabeth Lawrence seems to have enjoyed the correspondence with her “hard-working farm women” as much as she loved their flowers, for the letters she received from them play a huge part in Gardening for Love. “The farm women are great letter writers,” she says, “and usually answer (delightfully and often at length) if a stamped and addressed envelope is enclosed.”
Of course, reading about these correspondences now, in 2012, I can’t help but think about the changed landscape of letters. I’ve never been very good, myself, at putting literal pen to actual paper, let alone following through with a stamp. Take away my keyboard and I go mute. We talk to each other now in blog posts and comment boxes, and in emails, IMs, texts, tweets, status updates—and this thrills me. I’m not a communications neo-Luddite. I love that we have so many ways to connect, nowadays. Still, it’s hard to imagine a collection of emails filling me with the same kind of soaring joy I feel at holding the White-Lawrence correspondence in my hands. “Dear Miss Lawrence,” writes Katharine in reply to Elizabeth’s first missive, “it was delightful to get your your letter…”
Yes, it really was. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go read letter number three.
But of one of the great treasures of old Irish literature we will talk. This is the Leabhar Na h-Uidhre, or Book of the Dun Cow. It is called so because the stories in it were first written down by St. Ciaran in a book made from the skin of a favorite cow of a dun color. That book has long been lost, and this copy of it was made in the eleventh century…
In the Book of the Dun Cow, and in another old book called the Book of Leinster, there is written the great Irish legend called the Tain Bo Chuailgne or the Cattle Raid of Cooley.
This is a very old tale of the time soon after the birth of Christ. In the book we are told how this story had been written down long, long ago in a book called the Great Book Written on Skins.
That last bit cracked us up and we had to spend a while proclaiming the title in sonorous tones.
We enjoyed the story of the Book of the Dun Cow even more than the story in the Book of the Dun Cow, if you see what I mean. Marshall drops in intriguing details and doesn’t explain them: “But a learned man carried away that book to the East.” Who? Why? Where?
We’d have liked to hear more of Mary A. Hutton’s poem, “The Tain,” of which only a snippet was included—the Brown Bull’s death:
“He lay down
Against the hill, and his great heart broke there,
And sent a stream of blood down all the slope;
And thus, when all the war and Tain had ended,
In his own land, ‘midst his own hills, he died.”
Later we decided it was time for Rilla to meet The King of Ireland’s Son, and Padraic Colum’s rollicking, lilting prose swept us off on a grand adventure. Oh, such chills when the Eagle looks at the King’s Son with the “black films of death” covering her eyes!
Hmm, this is all sounding rather gruesome, but I guess I’m just calling out the gruesome bits. We were laughing ourselves silly at certain parts of the morning’s reading. And Colum weaves in such irresistible poetry:
His hound at his heel, His hawk on his wrist; A brave steed to carry him whither he list, And the green ground under him,
I put the fastenings on my boat For a year and for a day, And I went where the rowans grow, And where the moorhens lay;
And I went over the stepping-stones And dipped my feet in the ford, And came at last to the Swineherd’s house,– The Youth without a Sword.
A swallow sang upon his porch “Glu-ee, glu-ee, glu-ee,” “The wonder of all wandering, The wonder of the sea;” A swallow soon to leave ground sang “Glu-ee, glu-ee, glu-ee.”
In no particular order, some books and links we’ve been enjoying this week:
Adam of the Road. Newbery-winning middle-grade novel by Elizabeth Janet Gray. We’re only on chapter three so I haven’t much to share about it yet, but it’s delightful so far. Young Adam’s father is Roger the minstrel, and Roger has been off at a respected minstrel school in France while Adam’s attending school at St. Alban’s. And now Roger’s coming back, and I’m guessing from the title that Adam’s hopes will be fulfilled and he’ll be accompaning his father on a journey. Loads of good rich detail here, including, in today’s chapter:
“Sumer Is Icumen In,” a very old English round which I remember learning in a college poetry class. We had to memorize it in Middle English. (I can also still recite the opening of The Canterbury Tales, thanks to Prof. Kraus.) The modern English translation of “the bullock sterteth, the bucke verteth” had, naturally, my nine- and twelve-year-old daughters in hysterics. Scatological humor has no statute of limitations.
Beanie reread the St. Alban chapter of Our Island Story to refresh her memory of that tale, since the book opens on the feast of St. Alban in the town of St. Albans. On a walk, Adam and his friend Perkin pass the crumbling remains of the old Roman buildings from centuries past, and we found pictures of these at Wikipedia.
We’ve been reading bits of Gombrich’s A Little History of the World as well as sections of The Rule of St. Benedict. I looked all over for our copy of The Sailor Who Captured the Sea, a lavishly illustrated picture book that tells the story of the Book of Kells, but it hasn’t turned up yet. (We read it a few months back, though. It’s around somewhere.) Sister Wendy’s The Story of Painting has a nice section on the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels.
I had the pleasure of seeing this scroll (scroll down, no pun intended) up close in real life at our visit to Sandra Dodd’s house in Albuquerque last month. It’s a marvel. (I am still kicking myself for forgetting to take pictures during that visit. It was a good lesson for me—I kept my camera close at hand for the whole rest of the trip!)
Yesterday, by chance, Rilla pulled Barbara Cooney’s picture book Chanticleer and the Fox off the shelf, based of course on the Chaucer tale. We meant to read that (again) today but we got distracted by our old timeline, the one Jane and I began in New York in the year 2000 and which graced our wall for the four years we lived in Virginia, filling up with colorful entries. It has been in a roll on top of a cabinet the whole time we’ve lived here in California because I couldn’t find wall space for it. Too many bookcases! But today it occurred to me that it would fit in the living room/dining room if we stretched it all the way across the fireplace. It just barely fits—the dinosaurs wound up tucked behind some bookshelves, but we know they’re there.
ETA: More links & books I forgot in the comments.
“The crow when he sings is nothing short of a clown; he ruffles his feathers, stretches his neck, like a cat with a fish bone in her throat, and with a most tremendous effort delivers a series of hen-like squawks.”
This quote, attributed simply to a “Mr. Mathews” in the Anna Comstock Handbook of Nature Study, elicited a chorus of giggles from my flock this afternoon, when we encountered it during an hour spent informing ourselves about crows. Beanie, the nine-year-old, especially enjoyed it, and I heard her repeating it to herself shortly afterward.
This morning all our plans for the day went up in…not smoke, but mercury. Half the children have fevers and sniffles; some are worse than others. We canceled Shakespeare Club, much to the regret of the teenager and her mother (sob—we were to begin rehearsing scenes from The Scottish Play today), and although the older girls aren’t sick, we thought it best to forego their piano classes as well, lest we pass these unpleasant germs around.
Late in the morning, Rose and I spied a trio of crows quarreling on the phone wires out front. As we watched, it became evident they were fighting for a particularly choice perch on the fixture jutting out from the top of a pole. One bird claimed the spot, and the other two took turns wheeling and diving at him. He wouldn’t budge. They had us in stitches. Rose said it was like Saturday mornings on our sofa, when the children wrestle over the remote control.
We are often amused by the crows who haunt our yard, so we decided to find out more about them. Comstock was, as usual, more than helpful. (But if ever, ever, ever a book begged to be converted to a digital format, it is that unwieldy three-inch-thick behemoth!)
“The crow is probably the most intelligent of all our native birds,” she writes. “It is quick to learn and clever in action, as many a farmer will testify who has tried to keep it out of corn fields with various devices, the harmless character of which the crow soon understood perfectly….”
The kids enjoyed Comstock’s descriptions of tame crows, especially the story of one bird who “was fond of playing marbles with a little boy of the family. The boy would shoot a marble into a hole and then Billy, the crow, would take a marble in his beak and drop it into the hole. The bird seemed to understand the game and was highly indignant if the boy played out of turn and made shots twice in succession.”
Of course now we all want a crow for a pet.
After Anna Comstock, we had to see what the internet could tell us about crows. There was Robert Frost, of course, feeling cheered (as were we!) by the antics of a crow—
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
And Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Crows.
Comstock had told us that when a flock of crows (excuse me, a murder of them), descend upon a field, one of them always stands sentinel. Rose thinks the crow in the left foreground is probably this bunch’s sentinel.
A tame crow seems to have caught Picasso’s interest, too—
Woman with a Crow, Pablo Picasso.
When you’re talking about crows, Aesop comes to mind. We recalled the fables of the Crow and the Pitcher, and the one about the Fox and the Crow with the bit of cheese.
Crow poetry makes me think of the Scottish ballad, “The Twa Corbies”—rather a grisly tale, but gripping! Here’s a YouTube clip of the poem being read (not sung) aloud in Scots. There’s an English translation below the “more info” link. We also listened to this version sung by The Corries—still grisly, but quite lovely.
We put some peanuts on our patio table and were almost immediately rewarded with a comedy routine performed by three curious crows—the same lads from this morning?—who were terribly intrigued by these Delicious-Smelling Objects left Unattended on the Flat Thing—intrigued but too suspicious to do more than cock their heads and eye them warily from the back of a chair. Then up they’d wheel and careen around the yard, swooping low over the table but never Getting Too Close.
Rose is keeping a count on the peanuts to see if the crows get brave when we aren’t looking.