The Comfort of Creatures

Gourd Mask by Fred Swan

While cutting away at a tree limb that had fallen and adjusting the collar of my coat against the cold last week, a crow, familiar with our house, flew from the woods and landed below a cage of suet that hangs beside our deck – a feeding station that is shared by an ever-rotating kaleidoscope of birds and squirrels. This particular crow, I’ve noticed, is unable to hang from the suet cage like the other crows have learned to do. This crow, because of injury or age, has a malfunctioning foot that can’t hold the crow’s weight for any length of time or grasp and hold onto the wire mesh of the feeder. Still confident, however, the crow manages the task of eating the suet by jumping from the railing and pecking out pieces that become retrievable once they have fallen to the ground. Turning from the task of limb-cutting to watching the crow’s jump-peck-and-retrieve routine I wondered (since age is the great leveler of all species) if perhaps cold, wet weather ever bothered the crow’s feet.

Once back in the warmth of the house I mentioned how cold I had felt outside and my curiosity about the weather’s impact on the crow. Kathy responded by recalling an encounter we had with another crow thirty years ago on an equally cold and rainy day in March 1989. We were standing alone in the tower of a church in Oxford and looking over rooftops at another tower quite some distance across town. We had just arrived – days earlier – on our first real adventure as a couple after having raised our four children, our first time of being on our own in a world that was surprisingly larger than the bleachers or the parking lots of the schools that had the feel of being second homes.

It was too early in the year and too cold in Oxford that morning for any other tourists to be on the streets and while gloveless and looking out across the rooftops of the city Kathy and I huddled together for warmth in an empty, limestone niche from which a statue of a saint appeared to have given up its position. And then it appeared. The head of a large crow peeked out from of a niche to our right. The feathers on its head lifted in the breeze. Its face and beak, tattered by a life in the steeples, tilted in our direction as if it was truly curious about our presence on the balcony of the tower. “Perhaps,” – I remember having remarked to Kathy at the time – “it’s wondering if we are as cold as it is.”

I recall that moment – that experience of our being alone and huddling for warmth on a balcony of the tower and encountering the crow, and looking out at a city in a foreign land for the first time – as the moment when my thoughts turned from seeing ourselves as “parents” to once again beginning to discover who we were as a couple in the present.

Thirty years have passed since our encounter with the crow, so many more cold mornings have been lived, and so much deeper are the troughs Kathy and I have created as we have journeyed together on the other side of raising our children, through middle age, and now into the unfamiliar outskirts of our lives. We talk about this sometimes – the experience of aging and the changes and the challenges we’ve encountered in our lives – and , after so many years of being married – we frequently talk about the everyday of life – what to have for dinner, what’s coming up on Masterpiece Theater, the weather and how warm it was yesterday or how cold it’s going to be today, what errands there are to run, what tasks we hope to complete. We talk and plan our day in an early morning ritual. We sit on the deck every morning and as we talk we watch the sunrise through the woods or the rain as it deepens our creek. We go out with coffee and tea in the haze of fog or to the visual set-change of a snowfall. Whatever the morning holds we go out and we sit on the deck and I whistle a signal to the woods for the birds and squirrels to join our conversation. Since we said goodbye to our long-time companion, a lab named Lucky, the invitational whistle is an old behavior adapted, for the purpose of reverence, to a new circumstance in our life. The birds and squirrels learned the meaning of the whistle with surprising speed and now hop and fly to the feeders we stock within a minute of the signal.

Unlike that long-ago morning overlooking the skyline of Oxford, particularly cold mornings on our deck find us better prepared in the present with stancher coats, (and gloves when it freezes or snows), and two throw blankets we’ve made from remnant cuts of wool we’ve found. One of the blankets Kathy recently hemmed produces a visual fire of warmth itself – brilliant burnt- orange with black Inuit graphics of totem masks and mammals. The graphic beings patterned across the blanket have simplistically wide and curious eyes, like those of the birds and squirrels that come to the deck each morning to feed and to look at us. A Tohee arrives that appears to be a master of flight, but unsteady on its feet, others sometimes have tattered wings or missing feathers. A sparrow that recently started feeding was afflicted with what looked to be a huge tumor covered over with white feathers under its beak, much like that of a pelican’s. It came faithfully to my whistle for several weeks, then weakened and began to tremble as it hesitantly fed in the days before it stopped appearing at all. A squirrel with a bad hip that makes his body tilt to one side appears pleased that we have started putting food on the deck that it can eat without having to climb the height of the railing. And we are visited by another squirrel whose hips are still agile but who has aged eyes that are beginning to dull and cloud over.

There was a time in my life when this question about the possible interplay of cold weather and the joints of a crow or thoughts about the eyesight of a squirrel, or being curious about whether or not a bird’s knees could feel like my do when it first gets up in the morning, would have never crossed my mind – but I was young. In the present the thoughts and curiosity that are stirred on the deck each morning arise from the new and unfamiliar ground of my life, a period in which Kathy and I are once again discovering who we are as a couple – in later life, a period in which we are apparently keeping our eyes, like those woven into the warmth of the woolen blanket, wide and curious and on the lookout for the comfort of aging companions – whatever their species.