The World Clamors, Screeches Like the Raven, as the World Burns

Remember on this one thing, said Badger. The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memories. This is how people care for themselves.

― Barry Lopez, Crow and Weasel

Amazingly, more than 300 people sat in their seats and listened to two bird people talk about their new work, Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans, with a one-two punch delivery that truly was amazing. How many politicians out there could stand in front of a Seattle crowd and talk about real things and have real science and culture not only at their intellectual fingertips but under their skin? How many planning departments could even begin to frame neighborhood development and community design with so many gifts of the narrative and of the intelligence scientist John Marzluff and artist-naturalist Tony Angell mustered?

From my humble opinion, few if any.

Not one in the crowd was scrolling on their screens looking for the latest friends’ update or some nonsense story about a 100-pound scrotum sack guy going on Howard Stern to talk about his testicular fame.

These two fellows were miked and had their Power Point slides down, their video clips fresh and all that crow art work ready.

I’m pondering those corvids – crows, ravens, jays – who have messed with my cook kits in the middle of pinon pines in New Mexico or stole the “o” rings from my scuba tanks and the snorkels left on the gunnels of my dive boat in the Sea of Cortez. DV readers I am sure have their own crow stories.

Marzluff is a University of Washington wildlife professor who uses hi-tech PET scans to look at the brain of the big black birds. Angell is a naturalist who does amazing line drawings of the birds he sees and some of those in the stories they’ve collected from around the world. He’s helped with over a dozen books on natural history.

My buddy Dale Sanderson teaches hang gliding in Washington state, and he’s told me that many times when he’s up lifting there in a maze of chimneys pushing thermals into the heavens getting some mean air time along comes a crow or two, shadowing right alongside Dale, sometimes upside down.

We’ve got crows that grab surfboard-shaped bark and use the wood to wind surf. Crows that bunch up and toboggan down snow slopes. Crows that clatter and cluck when another in the flock dies. Crow funerals? Crows that end up in zoos and then five years after being dumped off say “Hello Bob” to the guy who raised him for two years when his conscience finally forced the human to check up on his ex-pet.

Five years passed, and, three quick crow salutations: “Hello, Bob. Hello, there, Bob. Hi, Bob.” New Caledonia crows that are videotaped using copper wire to not only attempt to poke and skewer a piece of food from a tubular piece of glass, but who wrap the wire around the circumference to fashion a hook to get at the morsel. And they do get it.

Crows that give the neighborhood animal loving food-giver not just shiny objects as appreciation, but clothespins and then the next and next day, panties and bras.

Why all this crow allusion? Their book, subtitled, How Perception, Emotion, Thought Allow Birds to Behave Like Humans, looks at the very un-bird brain cognition and forethought of these animals. They bloody calculate the speed, range, height and line of an on-coming 65 mph truck and duck while letting the vehicle swoosh over them unscathed.

Birds, and yet do our fellow species act like humans, really? Rio+20 proves the utter myopia and apocalyptic nature of humans, and our inability at forethought. Preparing for that planet 20, 30 or 50 years down the road. Nah!

I heard David Suzuki speak to several news outlets last week while witnessing the most obscene, inept and impotent world leaders and their ministers fail to have the humanity – the bird brain raw smarts – to put their collective feet down and stop the assault of our very survival and the razing of nature’s gifts by the energy fascists and corporate armies.

What a waste of fossil fuel and paper for inane reports. The pinnacle of collective human mismanagement and eco-pornography. When are these carbon-intensive charades going to end? When will the youth finally get it that corporations and government heads and their ministries of water, air, ag, oceans, and forests are broken undereducated creatures of the bureaucracy of ineptitude and smarmy-mouthed triple speech?

Here’s what David Suzuki said on Democracy Now:

If we don’t come together and say, ‘Look, let’s start with the agreement that we are biological creatures, and if you don’t have air for more than three or four minutes, you’re dead; if you don’t have clean air, you’re sick,’ so, surely, air, the atmosphere that provides us with the seasons, the weather, the climate, that has to be our highest priority. Before anything economic or political, that has to be the highest priority.

But what you’re getting is a huge gathering, as we saw in Copenhagen two years ago, a huge gathering of countries trying to negotiate something that doesn’t belong to anyone, through the lenses of all of the political boundaries and the economic priorities, and we try to shoehorn nature into our agenda. And it’s simply not going to work. A meeting like this is doomed to fail, because we haven’t left our vested interests outside the door and come together as a single species and agreed what the fundamental needs are for all of humanity. So we’re going to sacrifice the air, the water, the biodiversity, all in the sake of human political and economic interest. They’re doomed.

I remember when I spent time with Suzuki, both in person when I introduced him as a speaker-author at the Spokane, Washington, Eastern Washington University Press (now defunct as part of that budget-cutting-if-it-has-anything-to-do-with-the-humanities/arts/classics-it-must-go mentality) literary extravaganza, Get Lit! And on my radio show, Tipping Points: Voices from the Edge.

He reiterated how tired he was of coming onto radio shows where call-in yahoos would just rant and scream at Suzuki the scientist who also is an incredible international figure in popularizing science by making stars of the researchers and putting the dozens of disciplines they work in on his CBC science series. This is the century of the dumb-as-dirt legislators and the evangelists of commerce who want to believe the world is as old as the Bible says. This is the moment of the “I-read-it-on-a-blog-and-Fox-News-told-me-so” mostly gringo Caucasian male archetype blathering on about sun spots or a new The Day After ice age cometh.

That’s where we’ve devolved as the world burns. That’s where we are in this state of strafed higher education and lobotomized primary and secondary public education. That’s where we are heading in this age of hyper consumerism and lascivious lifestylism. We are in a world where youth are facing 10 and 12 hour work days until the skin is 75 years slack. We are in the perpetual endless series of stupid money grubbing leaders and their corporate generals gutting whatever it takes to protect the public health, safety and spirit from falling into that long, empty dark path toward extinction.

It’s a time when birds need to be the models for humanity to even begin to act compassionate. While that fun little hour and a half with two crow experts in Seattle’s Town Hall did add a bit of buoyancy to the concept of Homo sapiens the creative, the interested, the caring and the balanced species, the reality is the professor’s job is on the line because he’s studying the wrong thing – crows, human relationships to them and the crows’ incredible memory and self-correcting and culture-making ways.

The study is on the chopping block in this bifurcated political circus, where both parties have succumbed to the virus of corporate psychology and power politics around who gets the money, when and how much of it. That is the political gambit many a progressive piddles with.

All this high-five slapping after the most ruthless force of legal failure, the US Supreme Court, deems Citizens United oh so fair or just a few days later rules how the insurance companies will reign supreme as Affordable Care Act puts more people into a mandatory insurance-extortion racket.

Talk about bird brains – privatizing health care, education, prisons, public infrastructure and public services.

All my friends working on social justice campaigns high-fiving when Obama gives those same sex couples marriage confetti while his administration has opened up the spigots allowing energy mafioso to not only externalize most of the costs of drilling off shore or moving sludge from Alberta, Canada, to Texas, he’s letting that good old cowboy Ken Salazar (remember this Secretary of the Interior’s botched job with the Gulf of Mexico’s felon, British Petroleum?) make proclamations that Shell in the Arctic will be oh such a good neighbor – toxin-free and spill-free too boot.

Amazing how many in the so-called human justice movement have not read Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth, or Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change or Peter Ward’s Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us about Our Future. Or the stuff on the GOM – Antonia Juhasz’s book, Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill.1

The mass of us can’t see the forest for the trees, can’t step back from our consumer myopia to abstract things which are very immediate in our behavioral horizon and for which the consequences are not far off, certainly not many generations down the line.

They are all high-fiving because these sycophants and elites in the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to keep intact Obama Care, allowing the insurance industry to capitalize on millions more Americans who daily choose from putting food on the family table or now paying for health insurance.

That Royal Astronomer, Sir Martin Rees, was asked by the BBC to put in his odds as one of the country’s leading scientists in Britain about the “chances that human beings will survive to the end of this century?”

His answer was 50-50.

And still the Raven, never flitting, Still is sitting, still is sitting On the pallid bust of Pallas Just above my chamber door; And his eyes have all the seeming Of a demon’s that is dreaming, And the lamplight o’er him streaming Throws his shadow on the floor, And my soul from out that shadow, That lies floating on the floor, Shall be lifted–nevermore.

Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven”

  1. See Paul Haeder, “Revisiting the Gulf two years later,” dte, 30 May 2012 and “Amount of biological damage, loss in Gulf still unknown,” dte, 12 June 2012. []

Paul Kirk has been a journalist since 1977. He's covered police, environment, planning and zoning, county and city politics, as well as working in true small town/community journalism situations in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Mexico and beyond. He's been a part-time faculty since 1983, and as such has worked in prisons, gang-influenced programs, universities, colleges, alternative high schools, language schools, as a private contractor-writing instructor for US military in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Washington. Read other articles by Paul.