The crow is feeling philosophical. I can tell this by his airy pose, beak into the wind, inattentive to a slice of bread pinned beneath his right foot.
“A lot of what?” The wind is warm this morning, enabling me to open my office window. The lamp-post upon which he is perched is close enough for us to converse, as we often do, in the season.
“Oh, that.” I am trying to concentrate upon my writing. I tell him so.
“What? You too proud to speak now? I’ve got experience, I have: wisdom to impart. You should listen, you should.”
“Go on then!” I concede with a sigh. “What’s the matter, are you feeling your age? Grey feathers?”
“Me? Nah! Years in me yet. But when I think back on the things I seen…” He shakes his head, takes a casual peck at his bread. “Rubbish, this stuff. Ready sliced – I can’t stand it. See ya!” And he is gone, letting the bread fall to the ground; in seconds he is no more than a Morse Code dot and dash in the mist of morning, then he is nothing at all. Feeling vaguely dissatisfied, I return to my work.
How long passes – an hour?
Two loud pecks of a strong beak on plastic. He is back. “See this?” The crow attacks the top of the lamppost with angry jabs. “More rubbish! Cheap, this is. A shoddy answer. Everythin’ slips off it!”
As if to demonstrate his point he looses his grip and his feet slide in a very ingenious imitation of a moon-walk. I admit I was worried when, in depth of winter, two yellow-jacketed men arrived to replace the lamp unit that had been the crow’s favorite perch for so long. And it is true that for several empty weeks he did not return.
“It’s LED.” I inform him.
“Yeah? Does it work?”
“Not very well.” I reply. But I am curious about his strange mood, which is still far-off and distracted. “What IS the matter? You seem depressed.”
He emits a scornful cark. “Depressed? Me? You ever seen me depressed?” Then he gives me one of his cocked head sideways looks. “Yeah, alright. I am, a bit.”
“Why, what is it? Marriage problems?”
“’Er? The Missus? Don’t get me started!” He hops from foot to foot, pecks vaguely at the lamp-post, then waves his beak aimlessly. “Oh, gawd!”
“She’s a very nice bird, your Missus!”
“Yeah? You don’t have to live with ‘er, do you? She’s never happy. Never. We’ve got this nice nest, see, good position, excellent aspect towards Pizza Express. I lined it out for ‘er just last year with real nice polystyrene bits from those chip shop trays. They smell beautiful, they do! Do you know what I mean?”
I acknowledge that I probably do.
“Yeah. Perfect, they are. Insulation! No draughts, no waterlogging. What does she want? Eh, what does she want?” He pecks at the offending streetlight viciously. “Sheepswool! Bleedin’ sheepswool!”
I register my sympathy and disgust with a ‘tut’or two.
“Won’t lay an egg, she says, unless she’s got a full nest of new fleece units. And when I ask her why she ain’t content with the poly trays she says it’s because they aren’t ‘in’ this year. The Cawlies have got fleece, so she’s got to have it. I ask you!”
“Reprehensible.” I agree.
The crow looks at me blankly for a moment, then resumes. “Yeah, that. Anyway, here’s me, at my age mind you, flappin’ around the fields over at Little Leazes and sneakin’ up on those old mother ewes to get a quick beakful. Some of the things they say are not nice.”
“I can imagine.” I say. “A crow in your position…”
“Exac’ly! Exac’ly! I got status, I have. I got seniority. That nest of mine…”
“It’s a nice nest…”
“Highest nest in the hanger, that is. Any crow’d be glad to have that nest. The kids‘ll get it when we’re gone. But even they aren’t satisfied. Had the nephew round the other week an’ he was talkin’ about ‘clear fly-up zones’ and those new smooth-barked trees they got down the Garden centre.”
“That’s them! He don’t want my nest, it’s old fashioned. He wants a nest in a bleedin’ Eucalyptus!”
The crow shakes his head dismally. “All about image, these days – all about image. Look at you lot…”
“Ah!” I say, having wondered how long it would be before he got around to my sorry species. “What have we done?”
“Well, you got this numbers thing goin’ on, haven’t you? Like the more numbers you got, the better nest you get, things like that.”
Sometimes I catch up slowly. “Explain?”
The crow squawks his impatience. “When I want a bit of pizza I just nip down the back of Pizza Express and grab one, yes? What do you do? You go in the front way with all the lights and everything, stand waiting for half an hour and get one in a box. And you give ‘em numbers for it.”
“Oh, you mean money!”
“Money, that’s right. You use money for everything. You never used to, did you? You used to be like me, trading one thing for another, or nicking it if you had nothin’ to trade. Barter, that’s what you called it, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. How did you know that? We used to pay for things we wanted with other things we didn’t want, like baby pigs, or sheep.”
“But now you got numbers. So what’s happened? You got useless big-shot humans with lots and lots of numbers….”
“Millions of them.” I agree.
“Yeah, it’s got silly hasn’t it? Them over-stuffed humans living in great big nests with their millions of numbers, fillin’ them with polystyrene one year, then changin’ it all for fleece the next, and swannin’ around in huge shiny boxes so they don’t have to walk, and getting’ fat and dyin’ young…”
“The way you put it, it does seem unnecessary, doesn’t it?”
“Not just that, it doesn’t work! But – ah, but…” He stretches a scholarly wing. “Take away the numbers, mate, and make em’ barter, then they won’t use up nearly so much, will they? If they has to keep millions of baby pigs instead of numbers, how stupid will that look? See, they’ll learn to be content with what they actually need, instead of all this image stuff. Here’s another thing…” He fluffs up his feathers and suddenly lets loose with a very loud: “HARRY!!!”
A startled crow on a nearby house roof nearly jumps out of his feathers. “What?” Harry responds.
I would blush to record Harry’s next comment. My crow ignores it, however. He goes on: “Communication, see? Easy, innit? Free, innit?”
“Put that way, I suppose it is.”
“Exactly! Exac’ly!” He has an annoying habit of dancing with amusement at his own particular brand of irony. He does it now. “But what do you do? What do you humans, wiv your numbers, do?”
“You chuck bails of them numbers around, five – six hundred of ‘em at a time, getting little plastic boxes with lights and colored pictures to speak to each other with. Stupid things that gets nicked all the time, break all the time, and aren’t even any good for making nests. And you have to have the biggest one, the best one, ‘cause of your image.”
“Well, speaking of images…” I have realized by now that this particular rant is about mobile ‘phones, “…they do take rather good photographs.”
I recognize the trap too late. I have stepped right in.
“Yes! Yes, that’s it! You, wiv all yer numbers, you want your images. Pictures of this, pictures of that.”
“They’re memories!” I protest.
“Nah. Nah they’re not! They’re not alive, they’re not actual, living, three-dimensional, vital beings with voices and laughter and vitality – that isn’t your real nest, it’s jus’ an image of it; and it’s not to help your memory, but to show off to others, which isn’t honest, because it doesn’t let on how you constantly warred with the neighbors or how cold it was when it snowed, or how it felt in that room the day yer mother died. A picture doesn’t say that lady is that old woman’s daughter, and her smile doesn’t tell you how she resented livin’ wiv her and how she couldn’t find ‘erself a mate ‘cause she had to care for the old woman instead.”
“I’ve travelled a long way. I’ve seen many things. I’ve seen the orca’s leap, a beach with a hundred thousand seals, a mountain high and swathed in fog. I’ve watched the Grey Lag Geese arrowing south and murmurations of starlings sweeping to roost at sunset. Those are experiences, mate. I’ve lived them. When I share them with other birds I tell them what it felt like and then they can see it and feel it in their heads, so they don’t need no picture!
“And I don’t need…” He preens a rogue feather which, in his enthusiasm, has sprung up from his back “…no hundreds of numbers for that.” Fixing me with a stare, he asks: “That book you’re writing. Is it going to have pictures?”
“No. It isn’t.”
“There you are, then. Ask yerself what you actually need – what makes yer happy – and then maybe the obsession wiv numbers won’t mean quite so much. Now I got to get back to the Missus. She’s due to lay this week and she’s got an obsession for French fries.”