The behaviour of animals is often seen as a metaphor for that of our own species. Not for nothing do we anthropomorphise them, attributing them with human qualities they can’t possess in reality. Sometimes what is said is silly and sentimental, but stories about animals and birds can often tell us much about ourselves and our relationship with each other and the world.
I was thinking about this when I remembered a short story by Liam O’Flaherty, called Crow Fight. In less than four pages it captures the essence of a struggle for life in a complex society. The story begins with a group of young men, tourists in Ireland, who throw stones at a rookery. There is no reason why they should be doing this; they just do it for amusement. Soon they are bored, but one of them decides to stay behind while his companions walk on. He hires a local boy to gather stones for him and he spends an hour or so trying to knock down a nest. Eventually he succeeds and moves on.
The colony watches the sport with philosophical eyes: they have seen it all before. Only when they see the nest fall are they roused to anger. Within it is a young crow, the only remaining chick of an old bird that has been abandoned by her husband for a younger mate.
The mother bird is determined she won’t lose another. She finds her baby and picks him up and takes him to a fork in the trees. The rest of the colony looks on, curious but unperturbed. Seeking refuge she carries him up to a neighbour’s nest in which there are two young birds almost ready to fly, and she violently evicts them. An awful fight ensues and the old mother crow is badly battered, but she bravely stands her ground and protects her chick. Eventually the attackers leave off and she is left alone to care for her baby. Peace returns to the colony, order has been restored, and life goes on.
Crow Fight is a little masterpiece. Its vision of nature – human and avian – is neither cruel nor kind. Relationships are fundamentally violent but there is also a passionate energy for life and a desire to nurture and preserve what is ours. It’s a dark vision, but an honest one.
The image at the head of this piece is by Masahisa Fukase, one of a series of photographs known as The Solitude of Ravens, which is currently on exhibition. Now, the ravens in the picture are not ravens at all, not unless Japanese ravens are very different from our own. Neither for that matter are O’Flaherty’s crows what they claim to be, but rooks. The story and the pictures show birds that are communal in their behaviour, while the birds that are named are solitary. But the error says something true, I think: that the singular and the communal are each part of the other. The mother bird acts alone, but is always part of the group even while the group is threatening to kill her. The birds in the picture series seem alien, which is the essence of the solitude referred to in the title.
We are alone together, us and them.
Images Masahisa Fukase