For Thanksgiving, a serving of crows.
I wrote the poem “2020” earlier this year. Its first line:
It was a season of crows.
While on one of my morning walks this past summer, I encountered a murder(1) of crows, bouncing and talking (2) on a deep green field under the blue sky of a cloudless young day.
I was immediately struck by the contrast of their jet-black bodies against the green. When some of them took to flight, the contrast against the blue was equally dramatic.
As I walked, more and more crows joined the growing murder.
From this, the beginnings of a poem emerged.
I used to write poetry far more frequently. These days, something has to strike me a certain way.
I saw the growing number of crows — their darkness, their conspiratorial crow-speak, their confidence as they bounced on the green — as a metaphor. I wondered what would happen if so many crows arrived, you could no longer make out the grass? Or sky?
What would happen if, using psychology’s terms, you could no longer distinguish figure from ground?
The metaphor grew. It came to represent a view of how we all encounter information. Each crow became for me an instantiation of a bit of that information, be it news, fake news, truth, lies, or anything in between.
Awash in a field of crows, assaulted by all their voices, compelled to listen at first to one and then to another, eventually we retreat to the safety of our points of view, built up over time by our own inclinations and reinforced when we spend time among friends. From the safety of our retreat, we view with distrust those whose opinions differ from ours. Reinforced by our camp of crows, that distrust becomes anger — itself a fear response — and eventually, hatred.
Thus, tribes. (3)
Thus, speaking without listening.
Our world becomes this gibbering arrangement of black-feathered birds, each trying to outshout the other.
This evolution, this fall into tribes, is a natural thing. That it is natural makes it easy. That it is easy does not make it right. That it is easy makes it dangerous.
The far more difficult road is toward unification. Toward what we once had as our informal motto for well over a hundred years (until, in the 1950’s, Congress replaced it with “In God We Trust”): e pluribus unum. Out of many, one.
Such forging moments often come about in times of existential struggle. The struggle to form our nation. The struggle to form our government and its Constitution. The struggle to re-form our nation through civil war. The struggle to overthrow the evils of fascism, racism, and goals of world domination in World War II.
History’s lens is fuzzy.
It’s easy to remember the bravery of our patriots in the Revolutionary War, the vision of our founders in framing the Constitution, the purposes for which we say we fought our Civil War, the sacrifices of who we now call our greatest generation as they struggled through world war.
It’s easy, too, to forget the challenge General Washington had in keeping together a rag-tag, volunteer, poorly funded army through the protracted mess of the Revolutionary War (never mind the distraction of the British, for whom this was but one scene in a global war); or what some would call the manipulation of the founders in forming the Constitution in a secret convention, the purpose of which was not fully revealed until after the deal was done (never mind that the Federalists, themselves paradoxically champions of a stronger central government than their default-labeled anti-Federalist counterparts, won the day in part because they had corralled much of the press to assist in their marketing); or the deep divisions in the country that extended beyond the north-south views of slavery (itself far too simple) to how to digest the newly-acquired West, to suspicions of foreigners, to tests of legality and presidential authority, and finally to beliefs on both sides of the rightness of the cause, leading to half- to three-quarters of a million dead; or the isolationist spirit that preceded Pearl Harbor, which forced a reluctant nation into war and onto a stage it has occupied ever since (carrying with it such hindrances to liberty as Japanese internment camps).
It’s also easy to forget how unity is often forged from division, sometimes tragically when division is resolved through fighting versus discourse. This country has found (and may still find) itself divided on many things — civil rights, gender equality, international conflict (Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc., and many less-headlined ventures), abortion, pollution, land and water rights, climate change, environmental exploitation, nutrition, vaccines, when and where to use socialism and when and where to use capitalism (and their uneasy, necessary coexistence), religious freedom, freedom of expression, corporate reach, inequality, and, ultimately how to care for our widows, orphans, elderly, those in poor health, and each other.
A tall order.
Listening to the voices in all our media (social, print, sermon, politico-stump, and everything in between), an observer would conclude that as a nation we are sick, angry, anxious, overweight, mean, selfish, arrogant, devious, and on and on.
Well, maybe. But looking around, we may find in greater measure friendship, aid, compassion, thought, innovation, promise, trust, love, and on and on.
The trick is to use the latter to work on the former.
It’s far easier to sow the seeds of division than to reap the crops of unity.
Yet unity for unity’s sake is not the answer. After all, we can be unified in hatred, unified against a people or race.
It’s our nature to divide. We do so whenever we assert a position (as I’m doing here, by the way). But when we willfully use deceit, choose words to inflame, attack our challengers’ character rather than the content of their argument — this is where division harms.
The essence of argument (I argue) is not to win. It is to listen to both sides and, having done so, to discover what truths we can find from all sides. From this, we forge a better way through what, in all likelihood, is a shared challenge.
To dig in, to double down, does nothing in the end. We become stuck in the concrete of our one-sided convictions. We go nowhere.
In this environment, if we listen, we’ll hear our own crows. We’ll view the other crows - the other murder - as a threat to our own worldview.
Some of our media, for popularity’s sake (really for incremental sales and money), will emphasize and enhance our divisions. Conflict sells in the marketplace, be it fact or fiction.
Thus, the confusion of voices, the challenge of figure and ground. If we’re not careful, black will be everywhere.
This is especially true as voice and counter-voice, attack and counter-attack, increase in both volume and number and decrease in civility.
From this mess, essential truths are lost. What do we want for ourselves? How do we want to participate in the world? Where do we go from here?
Instead, we’ll cast our votes against our opponents and rationalize the sins of our champions.
And all too often, the “winning” side (the slightly larger chunk of a plurality, however counted), will disregard (or minimize) the voices of those disaffected with the winning vision.
So it goes.
Disaffection, distraction, disorientation. Our national disease?
Because we hold the answer.
It’s rooted, as always, in civil discourse. In listening before speaking. In seeking to understand the opposing point of view - however distasteful at first glance that view may be.
To argue is to arrange all our crows, to seek truth, to expose deceit and fraud, unethical ambition, wherever it may be.
The truth is hard enough to come by. We don’t need to obscure it further by layering it with suspicion, dishonesty, and outright lies.
Making our one-sided point may win bread for our table — but we’ll eat in half a nation. Nothing to be thankful for in that.
We’ve had times in the past when division has been encouraged, and when fear and fake populism have challenged courage and truth. McCarthyism, Know-Nothings, Father Coughlin, yellow and captive journalism, Klan behavior and other antics are all examples of this. At times we have been just as divided, if not more so, than today. That individuals spoke (and acted) truth to power in these situations testifies to the resilience and dependability of ordinary people. Seeds of greatest generations are hidden in small acts which, accumulated, remind the nation of its responsibility to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.
I’ll leave you with this analogy (and the poem itself).
Think of a garden. Unity is like crops, and division, weeds and insects. Despite best intentions, weeds grow faster and easier than many crops. But the goal of a gardener is not simply to spray weed-killer or insecticide. Doing so poisons the crops and compromises their nutrition (in part because crops become stronger when fending off challenges). Certainly the gardener weeds and controls insects. The gardener also tolerates a certain amount of crop loss. And, in some cases, what is a weed to one gardener can be a nutritious food to another — purslane, lambs’ quarters, and dandelions come to mind.
We must view our national discourse as a garden of ideas. Stop spraying weedkiller and insecticide on the other side (however great the temptation). Be on the lookout for opposing points of view — weeds — that may be more nutritious than your own. Look for the purslane underfoot.
Find ways to cultivate truth.
We can be overwhelmed by our crows, as the poem describes. Or — as a start — we can eat some of them in the search for truth and our way forward.
Here’s the poem.
It was a season of crows.
First a few dark
Wrinkles in the sky
Sometimes merely one
Tiny blot against the blue.
On our green fields
We discovered them
Strutting and bouncing
Mysterious and watchful.
Eyes bright black, their
Bills sturdy wedges
Better to pry their prey.
We should have known:
Rolling back the years
We might have recognized
Our role as their intended.
We were first amused
We would rush them
Mock their irritated flight
While they landed further in.
Their population grew
An abundance of feathers
A gathering of caws.
First in our fields
And hidden in our trees
Then scarring our skies
Until their black dominated.
They unfolded in waves
Storms of savage wings
Incessant raucous noise.
Looking back, this 2020 year
Our perfect vision year
We should have seen and known
And knowing, repossessed our world.
The truths we chose to keep
Obscured our sight
Like well-beaten dogs, our
Tails still wagged for hate.
We widened our divisions
Kept our guns and grudges;
Pressing back-to-back we faced
Our confidential crows.
We could not see for noise:
Sightless horses, we
Planted stubborn hooves
Awaiting some salvation.
We could have stopped them.
Minds yet our own, we
Might have cleaned our ears
Lubricated our eyes
Shattered their brittle iron.
They were but crows.
Their squabbles rend silence
Wings touch wings in flight
And no light penetrates.
Our cataracted vision
Loses ground for figure:
Black erases blue
Ebony tramples green.
Alone in darkened rooms
We sift opioided terrors,
Taut despairs and fears
Rattling our gilded cages.
Our world’s colors
Moan sore like doves
Lamenting our stolen vision.
That’s false, we know.
We used their voices
Let their eyes be ours
Their smudged sight substituting
While we chased distractions.
Masters now, these smokelings
Scratch and rasp and laugh,
Their caverned ancient darkness
All that’s left to us.
This, our 2020 year
This, our visionary year
This, the year we sold
Our children to the crows.
(1) The term we use for a group of crows is a “murder of crows.” From old English times, earliest reference appears to be the Book of St. Albans, 1486. These references (a “cast of falcons,” etc.) are known as “terms of venery.” Interesting that ravens, which to me are larger and more ominous than crows, are referred to as merely “an unkindness of ravens.”
(2) Crows do far more than just “caw.” They have over 250 different calls, mate for life, and form families.
(3) “Tribes” is used here in its more divisive sense — divisions which have of late been encouraged by some of our nastier political leaders — and not in the more nuanced sense associated with our Native Americans. (I could also say here “so-called political leaders,” because sowing division is what fearful and insecure people do — hardly qualities we admire in people thrust onto the leadership stage. We might be better off remembering that the term “leader” is earned anew every day through action, not bestowed once and kept forever.)