Crow Journal 12

23 / 05 / 2023

Thoughts about crows, sightings, encounters, communication ... 
Some thoughts to write down from one of the regular conversations I’ve been having with Chris about this project. We had this particular conversation while walking (we have a lot of conversations while walking), this time, down to the lake alongside the old copper mine. On the way there, the path passed through an area of birch trees. There were two huge ravens in the trees. Black as can be, croaking and calling to one another. We saw them again (I think it was them), on Sunday as we were walking back from the lake.

Chris asked me about things were going with the research and we ended up talking about the crow questionnaires. Quite a few people answered these questions in the end. Many more than I expected. And it was enough to get an overall sense of certain things. Of course it wasn’t scientific in any way and the group who answered were selected by me, just because I knew them, and self-selecting in the sense that they could choose to answer or not. They do not in any way represent a purposefully broad cross section of age, race, geographical / cultural background, religion, etc. Even so, the results are anecdotally and artistically interesting.

One thing that became very interesting was how people responded to the symbolic meaning of crows. Almost everyone gave a kind of two-layered answer to this question in the sense that they explained what the received cultural symbolism of crows was in their particular culture, but then went on to say how their own feelings about crows contradicted or complimented that. The ‘top’ layer generally referred to negative symbolism as crows as harbingers of death, doom, and bad luck. This symbolism tends to refer to or align with religious symbolism, religious stories, etc. The ‘under’ or personal layer, however, appears to stem from personal observations of crows in the wild and a noticing of their resourcefulness. These symbolisms were much more positive, though tinged with deep ambivalence even for those who love crows (there are many), referring to survial and tricksterism, for example. Conversely, even those who found crows frightening or creepy seemed to be able to appreciate them. In fact, the aversion was sometimes based around this intelligence and resourcefulness. None of the respondents had a phobic-type aversion to crows, such as one might have of snakes or spiders. 

A generic answer might be something like this: ‘Crows symbolise death and bad luck, but I don’t really believe that. For me, they are much more to do with resilience and intelligence.’

The upshot of this was that I realised that most people function symbolically in quite a complex way — at least around crows. This made me realise that the way I feel about symbolism is also the way most people appear to. There is a received symbolism that feels more or less removed from my own experience. Perhaps it has been handed down through fairy stories or religion or superstition. I am aware of it, perhaps to a greater or lesser degree and with more or less detail, and I am aware that it is ‘out of touch’ somehow. Or archaic. Or moralising, etc. Then I also have a rich symbolic layer of my own that feels personal and feels as though it has arisen from my own private inner world in relation to observation and experience. It is my feeling that this symbolism is perhaps more nuanced, more ambivalent, more intelligent even. 

Ironically, there is perhaps for most of us the feeling that it is us alone who has this second layer of nuanced symbolism while ‘everyone else’ adheres to the top layer symbolism (which, also, ironically, no one seems to adhere to). 

There are lessons here for using symbolism in performance:

1) Even though the ‘top layer’ symbolism will be familiar to most, it is likely that it does not resonate with, or even contradicts, the most potent and active symbolisms. This is particularly relevant if we borrow the symbolism of cultures we are less familiar with. To assume that ‘top layer’ symbolism (i.e. that found in books and fairytales) is potent could miss a trick.

2) Even though the ‘under layer’ symbolism feels personal and ideosyncratic, it would also appear to be shared on some level, even though we don’t discuss it as much. To access this layer of symbolism could be very potent indeed for talking to an audience in a way that feels personalised and magical, in a true sense, rather than in a tired, archaising folkloric way.

3) It is feasible to play the two layers of symbolism off against one another, so the ‘top layer’ of symbolism could be referenced and then undercut. 

4) While the top layer of symbolism can be accessed from broadly available media, such as Wikipedia articles or books about culture and folklore and symbolism, the ‘underlayer’ is perhaps best accessed by talking directly to people in order to get a feel for it. 

5) Perhaps most importantly, one should not assume that one’s own symbolic language is more sophisticated than the average person’s. It would be a mistake to think: ‘Oh, this is quite a complex multilayered thing for me, but for other people a crow symbolises X.’ Of course, this perception that one’s own symbolic language is more sophisticated than that of others is also, apparently, a thing we all share. This means it too can be used as a technique in performance. The two contradicting layers here too can be played off against one another.