Wednesday, March 21, 2012


I had just finished an early spring trail run. The walkway leading back to the parking lot was warm from the sun, and so I took my time stretching there.  From all directions sounded the happy racket of birdsong.  I closed my eyes, leaned out over my extended legs and listened. Eventually I picked out the voices of two crows calling to each other. Sitting up and squinting in the sun, I looked for them.  

The two crows were perched high in two towering linden trees about fifty yards apart. They called to each other in a distinctive pattern. The first crow let out a single "caw" which the second crow answered with a double caw. The exchange went on in this manner for a few minutes. Whenever Crow 2 delayed responding, Crow 1 would call repeatedly until Crow 2 answered.  After a while Crow 1 began to make a doubled caw that sounded almost like "papa" or "uh-oh," which Crow 2 answered with a single caw, and an occasional nasal honk.

Now many agree that crows have a language. The patterns of their calls vary from region to region, which indicates that their communication patterns are learned and not purely instinctual. That's not surprising considering that young crows spend several years with their parents: the longer this period of dependence lasts in any species, the more the young are learning.  And crows are well known for their spectacularly adaptive intelligence. (See the links below for some great examples.)

Less discussed are their strong social bonds; I've read of crows having funerals for dead members of their rook, gathering at the spot where the bird was killed, sitting in silence for a few minutes, then flying off.
So as a lazy breeze blew and I stretched my hamstrings, I wondered... were these two birds mates? Or parent and child? It almost sounded as if Crow 1 kept calling just to hear back from Crow 2. I'm no expert, but I imagine that crow language isn't symbolic like ours. I didn't think they were talking about anything.  It seemed to me that they were just delighting in each others' -- and their own -- voices. It seemed to me that they simply enjoyed knowing they were there for each other.

It made me think of all the ways we use language. In our word-glutted world we can become so caught up in the symbolic aspects of language that it's easy to lose sight of the fundamental relational function. We gather and give information. We debate. We critique. We expound. We judge and denounce. We promote and advertise. We shock and overpower, seduce, deflect, deny, acquiesce. So much of what we talk about is elsewhere. So much of what is said is a struggle to possess the past or define the future. So much of what we do with language is about manipulating desire and securing power, popularity or security.

I know we cannot -- and should not -- turn off the supernova of kaleidoscopic possibilities that symbolic language gives us. But there's something to be said for being able to speak more easily of the present in the present. In the moment there is always an opportunity to simply connect. To be more fully here in heart, body and mind. Imagine developing the use of language in that state. What comes to mind? How might we speak to one another if we were better able to use this kind of "present" tense?