I walked downtown yesterday from the shop, as the sun appeared and then slid again behind clouds, snow falling in that sweet calm way. I was trying to clear my head after a difficult and frustrating walking tour the day before: approached early in the tour by a person in the heights of a manic episode, dramatic and full of talk of angels and jesus, evil and light. I tried to steer my group away from him, to talk to him gently to redirect him, but only got more engagement — huge passionate speeches that we hadn’t followed the whole time, so couldn’t follow at all. At the end I was just standing powerless watching him gesture with his whole body, showing us the heights and low places of his story, and pointed dramatically at one of my tour guests. “I can see it in your eyes!” he said, what “it” was I blocked, evil or the light of an angel, who could say. Finally we walked far away, me trying yet again to restart my narrative in the midst of my own high anxiety.
A few hours after the tour the partner of the man with the eyes, a New Yorker, sent an imperious email she thought was directed to the third party booker that had been how she had found us at the last minute that morning. She proclaimed the tour content and the guide “underwhelming” and enumerated all the things missed that I should have covered. Never mentioning the man with the manic finger.
Of course it was me who received it, stewed over it all evening, finally responded offering a partial refund, carefully apologizing for the disruption and calling myself in third person sad, sorry, upset.
It’s so hard for me to let these things go, as little as it really means either financially or for the future. A refund for one walking tour. An email exchange. None of her friends or family, surely, will be recommended our tour — surely, I’ll only benefit from that.
I walked downtown on this beautifully cold morning, and the snow began as I walked, a skim coat of ice crunching under the little spikes on my shoes. There are so many kinds of beautiful snowy days: the days with a chill white-grey that surrounds everything, the days when the light in the sky is yellow instead of blue, the days when the sun shines so brightly that you can only see properly while squinting, the days when the snow clouds surround you and all beyond a dozen feet is a luminous frozen mist. This was the first kind, chill with a bit of blue sky in the distance, promise of what might be sun in the hours to come.
As I passed the federal building and the police station we call the “injustice center,” bile usually rises in my throat, memories of fear and loathing past and future. It was less today, and then walking past me, I saw the person who had engaged us so intimately in his raging the day before. They met my eyes, briefly. “Good to see you,” I said, it was, good to see a presence calming and almost bright. Even their clothes were different, all black and almost crow-like, I swear I saw feathers, the day before; this day was a red-winged blackbird, bright spots and variegation.
It was all I needed, this calm-enough “hello,” to remember that I knew this person, had spoken to them a few times delivering things to the camp here. Their world is full of prayer and spirits of light and darkness. I remember their eyes shining so full of hope and charm.
I could not change the world in one go, could not even communicate with the person who found me “underwhelming” because, probably, I did not call the police on this person. But I could tell these stories.
The tour that day was wonderful. Several solo guests and a family part from Delhi and part from other parts of Oregon. I told my stories about the city’s and the state’s history of white supremacy; I told stories about the Indigenous people and the presidents who hated them or simply cared nothing for their humanity. I tell of architecture decisions made for whim and nostalgia and the flattery of imitation and to cause affront. I tell of institutions built for our reputation and institutions built to spare us those people who were not white. I tell of floods that killed people, I tell of heat waves that killed people, I tell of police who killed people. And how we as a city still hold ourselves blameless.
“I didn’t know this,” said the people. “This surprises me.” The ultimate gift I can give someone is to surprise them into the realization of what our heroes truly are. Villains is too easy a term.
At the end, as in the best of all possible tours, I was thanked, I was tipped, a selfie was taken along with me.
Later I walked again to the coffee shop and back, dedicated to the wonder of an Ethiopian bean. As I walked through the streets of southeast Portland, as happens every day before sunset in the midwinter, the crows were beginning their evening routine — in many ways so much more stunning and all-encompassing than the swifts in the late summer.
No one sets up lawn chairs and brings picnics and families to watch the crows roost in the trees.
I wish I could have taken pictures of the crows that made me feel as I did watching them, a feeling of exultant overwhelm, a feeling of absolute envelopment in the ever-moving swarm. I watched as a group swarmed, undulating, overhead and into the distance leaving behind so many crows that they lined everything I could see for blocks, every low building roof, every power wire, every fence, every dumpster. On a short no-parking sign a crow sat, cocking his head and cawing curiously. They sat, but not still, swooping from one perch to another in groups and singles. Everywhere, every direction I looked, crows lined the edges of things; crows moved around me.
There is this sense of the connectedness of all things that takes a creature who speaks another kind of language entirely to evoke. The wildness of the sounds are also the comfort of the sounds, indistinguishable by we mere humans from one another, part of a tapestry that melds with the other tapestries of sound and sight and smell, the vibrant world of creatures and growing things forcing itself upon the city. Oh we with all of our hubris, the belief that somehow we have anything we can control. The animals and birds, no matter whether categorized as beautiful or offensive, friend or vermin, are not ours to limit, welcome or fear. They are here among us, they neither read signs nor follow laws. Yet they are part of our social order.
The crow, the flicker, the rat, the coyote, the squirrel: each sings for us its own song of anarchy. No one asks who keeps the crows safe from each other. Why need we barriers from other humans whose skin or family’s immigration timing or former status as slave was different?
I do not understand.
In that moment or series of moments, as I walked underneath and among these ubiquitous birds, I was one with the anarchist crows, one with the pigeons, one with the seagulls above. It is the season of crows; harsh, cold, and hungry; and at the end of each story we are all one. The way we treat the creatures held as the least of us is the way we treat ourselves.
Have awe, and failing that, have mercy; you know nothing of crows or people dressed like them. No rule of law exists, nor should it. You are the one choosing to walk among them.
It is the season of crows.