Boos, Birds, and Bikes. Oh My!
“Among the Romans, not a bird
Without a prophecy was heard.
Fortunes of an empire often hung
On the magician’s magpie’s tongue,
And every crow was to the state
A sure interpreter of fate.”
It is a beautiful October day
in the backcountry of Vinton County for a
bike ride on the newly constructed Moonville Tunnel Rail-Trail that traverses Zaleski State Forest. I pause briefly and straddle my bike to admire the Autumn foliage, described by Thoreau as "painted leaves" overhanging the stone arch of Moonville Tunnel. The bike trail tunnel entrance is damp and dark, contrasting with the bright October sunshine that “enchants the land with amethyst.” I hesitate before leaving the light and entering the darkness, recalling the local ghost story about the brakeman killed by a train; his ghost now haunts this tunnel. A crow alights on an oak branch above the spooky entrance. It looks down at me and calls as if it is an urgent warning to other birds about my presence, or perhaps it is bidding, nay, pleading with me not to enter. Its wild and raucous call sparks my imagination. In my mind’s eye, I hear it say, "Quoth the Raven Nevermore." Poe's poem, The Raven, resonates with me at that moment, reminding me that some birds like owls, vultures, buzzards, and especially crows and ravens through time eternal are associated with the mystical, paranormal, and the supernatural.
Humanity's relationship with the avian group of birds classified as Corvidae, including jackdaws, jays, magpies, nutcrackers, rooks, ravens, and crows, varies from fear and hatred to love and admiration. Corvids are considered tricksters, tyrants, thieves, and harbingers of evil omens and death in some human cultures and traditions. They are messengers of the gods, helpers, spiritual guides, and embodiments of the spirit world in others.
In Europe, during World War I and II, crows and ravens scavenged the corpses of dead soldiers on battlefields and shallow graves, which led to their and hatred and persecution by humans who associated these birds with death. In America, crows are agricultural pests and nuisances because they depredate crops and urban scrounges because of their love for human waste in trash dumpsters, landfills, or any place where humans litter the landscape. My grandmother, the mystic of the family, believed that if you see five crows fly by, sickness will follow; 6 crows will foresee death. Historically, crows and ravens have been birds of bad omens and forecasters of impending doom by human cultures reaching back to the Roman Empire.
On a more positive note, crows and ravens are also considered protectors, prophets, and psychopomps, that is conductors of souls to the spirit realm. The famous six ravens kept at the Tower of London, a tradition started by King Charles II (1630-1685), are national talismans that guard the king's realm. According to the legend, if the ravens remain in the Tower, the nation of England cannot be conquered. In the Judeo/Christian biblical tradition, Noah sent out a raven to search for land, and God sent ravens as helpers to provide food and encouragement to Elijah. According to Lesley Morrison, author of "The Healing Wisdom of Birds,” Celtic mythology believed that “battle goddesses would shape-shift into crows and ravens at the time of a warrior’s death to guide his soul to Valhalla-the celestial hall of those slain in battle.” Many Native Americans believe that crows and ravens are the "keepers of the Universal Law or the laws of the Great Spirit." A person who possessed crow and raven medicine could access the deeper secrets of the universe and the sacred connections between the creation, its creatures, and the Creator.
All these traditions, legends, and folklore concerning crows and ravens and their interactions with human culture are important and worthy to pass on from generation to generation. But Corvids are also amazing group of birds from a scientific point if view. For example, crows and ravens display behavior that reveal cognitive problem-solving abilities generally attributed to humans only. According to wildlife scientist John Marzluff, in his excellent book "Gifts of the Crow," corvids “are exceptionally smart, not only do they make tools, but they understand cause and effect. Like humans, they possess complex cognitive abilities. In fact, they have been called “feathered apes.”
I stop, and awaken from my thoughts and musings about the crow's amazing folklore and natural history and return to face the tunnel. The crow persists in its cawing, like a fire and brimstone preacher, warning, seemingly still pleading with me not to enter. But reason and science prevail, and I overcome my otherworldly imaginations and muster the courage to venture into the dark abyss of the tunnel. However, as I peddle through the tunnel, I can’t help but sense a presence behind me and an urge to look back. I see only hollow blackness, no spectral figures, no phantom brakeman, just the echo of the crow’s call reverberating off the brick and a circle of Autumn sunlight before me. I quicken my pace towards the light.
By Lynn Holtzman
References and Recommended Readings
“Gifts of the Crow” by John Marzluff and Tony Angell
“The Healing Wisdom of Birds” by Lesley Morrison
“Moonville-Its Past, Its Ghosts, Its Legends” by Jannette Quackenbush
“Moonville Rail-Trail Birding Guide” pdf. at birdingohiobikeways.com