25 October 2011

Close Encounters of the Corvid Kind

Corvid in the Wind, Point Reyes National Seashore, California, 2011

I have been making a study of crows and ravens, the family of Corvids (from the Latin = Corvus, family Corvidae), all during the summer.  I find these birds fascinating because of their clever behavior and ability to use tools. I thought it might be fun to learn a bit more about them in a natural science way, so I am writing a natural science article about crows that live in and around Annapolis and Anne Arundel County for the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary newsletter, Marsh Notes.  We have two types of crows here in Maryland, the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) who is slightly bigger than his relative, the Fish Crow (Corvus ossifragus). 

Alongside the incredible scientific studies out their on crows and their raven cousins is the sheer amount of cultural encounters with corvid kind that I have had without even trying very hard.  My research into these birds in the natural world has opened up floodgate of mythological, sociological, and poplar culture references.

Something to Crow About, Big Sur, California
Crows are such an important part of language and our mythic psyche that it is difficult to summarize it all. You might have something to "crow" about if you are proud or be forced to "eat crow" for your misdeeds. If you need to get somewhere quickly, you might see how to get there "as the crow flies." If you need a hand, try a "crowbar," a tool which is named for the shape of a crows' beak, but I think it especially apt for a bird who can cleverly use sticks as tools to get at food as scientists have recently discovered. Farmers still put out scarecrows in the fields to ward off blackbirds from their crops, but the scarecrow is more of an artistic convention than a deterrent to these would-be crop-snackers.

Ravens seem to follow me everywhere, from the local football team here in Baltimore to Charm City's admiration for its resident storyteller Edgar Allan Poe, whose most famous poem is "The Raven." Every autumn, I see crows gathering in the farmlands, looking for tasty bits the farmers left behind. And I also see the Raven appear faithfully every October as one of the Halloween images along with ghosts and monsters. Ravens seem associated with portents of doom, and have been part of this cultural association since our ancestors watched them hover around carcasses and carrion. Therein lies the dark side of this bird family's mythology.

Opportunistic eaters like humans, corvids don't let a potential meal go to waste. Crows and ravens haunt the history of Western culture as harbingers of death and decay because they find our killing grounds, road kill, and trash heaps so appealing. I can understand why the angry farmers whose crops have been stolen don't like them, and why watching watching crows pick through garbage may make them seem "dirty" and unappealing to many people. When I look at my own Northern European ancestry, I find many stories that involve corvids seen in a negative light.

My Celtic forebearers, for example, often associated corvids with goddesses of battlefields, death, and devastation like Macha and Badh Catha. Ravens or crows might appear as companions to these angry, hungry goddesses, or in the case of the Morrigan at the time of Irish hero Cuchulainn's death, she might shapeshift into one.  This isn't very surprising, since part of the corvids' job is to take one human's tragedy and turn him or her into lunch. But fear is a powerful influence on the mind, and so corvids become associated with war goddesses and prophets of death.

Gods, too, are associated with corvids, including Bran the Blessed (Bendigeidfran, the name means Blessed Raven), whose severed head was said to be buried in the ground at a site upon which the Tower of London was built. Bran's head, and apparently since the reign of King Charles II,  modern ravens with clipped wings are there to ward off invasion.  The Norse god Odin has a pair of ravens, Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Memory), who fly the world each day on a reconnaisance mission to observe and report back news from Middle Earth.These are but two of the cultures for whom corvids figure widely in myth and legend.

Wherever people live, crows especially have found ways to live close to them. Ravens tend to keep themselves to themselves and seem to be less tolerant to humanity's grasp on the environment. Both crows and ravens, on the other hand, are a great interest to Native American peoples.  Corvids vary widely in their character from the malicious Trickster to benevolent helper of humankind in Native myths. My all time favorite depictions of these birds come the art of the Pacific Northwest and Alaskan peoples on bark paintings and wood carvings. So revered are these birds that certain families adopted crows or ravens as their symbols.

There is much to be read on the subject of corvids. For my personal explorations, I chose books that combine scientific and creative approaches.  Author Catherine Feher-Elston created a collection of mythic stories and factual essays in her book, Ravensong: A Natural and Fabulous History of Ravens and Crows (Penguin, 2005) that I want to recommend to anyone interested in exploring the folklore, as well as natural history, of corvids in more depth.  Likewise, one of the most readable studies from both the natural science and cultural perspective on corvids is by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell entitled, In the Company of Crows and Ravens (Yale University, 2005).  Their book surveys scienists' understanding of corvids without neglecting their long effect on our culture. An artist's gorgeous illustrations accompany all aspects of their guide to corvid culture. And finally, for those deeply interested in ravens and their intelligence, you should not miss the incredible books Ravens in Winter and Mind of the Raven by ornithologist Bernd Heinrich, who is not only a brilliant scientist, but a natural storyteller.

My personal survey of crows and ravens leaves me more enchanted than frightened. I find their black feathers shine in the sunlight and their profiles to fit their obvious intelligence and nobility.  Their "caw-caw" and "quork" sounds more like discussion than noise to me.  I can't help it, but I find their antics amusing. I can see crows and ravens as tricksters, but not as malevolent beings.

The photos you see above and below are tributes to the corvids I spent time with this summer in California. There was one early morning where we drove up to the northern section of Point Reyes National Seashore and discovered hosts of crows and ravens lining the farmyard fences. As the car came up the hill, hundreds of black wings took flight on both sides of us and in multiple groups, the corvids flew away. They flocked together in groups. (Family groups? I wonder.) Always, they kept eyes on each other and us. Amazing. So much so, that I had to go back another morning to take more photos.

Fly by Wire


24 September 2011

Into the English Countryside

Civilization = Tea at Avington Park
    I admit that I have a romantic view of England and, in particular, of the English Countryside. I grew up guided in my tastes by my mother, who is a devoted Anglophile and who taught me to love my English heritage.

When I think of England, it's often the landscapes I'm dreaming of. The cloud-filled skies that painter John Constable so loved.

On my most recent trip to England, my husband and I spent a lot of our time out in nature and surrounded by gorgeous scenery.

What follows is a photo-documentary of sorts. A sequential view of one late summer day spent walking out from King Alfred's glorious town of Winchester, and roaming into the rolling pastures along River Itchen. To my creative eye, the views of Hampshire that day represent the England of my dreams.

The entrance to Winnall Moors from Winchester

Our plan for the day was to follow the old pilgrimage trail, St. Swithun's Way, out of Winchester on the public footpaths. The Way goes north and east out of the town and heads first along Winnall Moors to the valley of the River Itchen.

It might as well be the country where in a distant fairy tale, The Wind and Willows takes place . . .

Setting out on the public footpath
The River Itchen
August = Ripe Berry Season
Following St. Swithun's Way

Bovine luncheon

St. Swithun's Church, Martyr Worthy

Baa Baa Black Sheep, Have you any wool?

An old mill

The mill race
Avington Park
Edwardian Day at Avington. Observe the vintage bicycles.
The conservatory, where tea is served.
Walking back up the long avenue.
St. Mary's Church, Kings Worthy
Still on the right path . . .
A long dark tunnel of trees

A lone swan on the Itchen

Back in King Alfred's capital city.

Hail, King Alfred, First of His Name

21 August 2011

My First Crochet Project

I learned how to knit in college. A group of us guys and gals used to hang out on Thursday night after class, drink coffee and knit at the local cafe called the Runcible Spoon (a cross between a spoon and fork, called "spork" by some). [Wow! That cafe is still there in Bloomington. I ♥ the Internet!]

I knitted scarves, then increased my difficulty by jumping straight to sweaters with the help of an artist friend, Joe. He's the one who actually taught me to knit, or more accurately, reminded me how to knit, since my Aunt had taught me as a child.

That was many years ago. Every so often I decide to learn a new technique, often by taking a class but sometimes just by choosing a challenging pattern.

This year I decided that it was finally time to learn how to crochet. A friend made several attempts to teach me but I could never wrap my brain around it or stick with it.

So, I signed myself upnfor a three-week, beginners' crochet class at A Tangled Skein, a lovely little yarn shop in Hyattsville.

It is amazing how humble you feel when trying something completely new. I was definitely not the best and brightest of the students. I got it in my head before I could make my fingers actually hold the fabric properly.

But a little practice and awkwardness becomes sucesss.

My circular coaster is done! I think I going to like having this new textile skill to draw on. Not bad for a first project.

My First Crochet

09 August 2011

"In, As You Say, the Mud"

   [History Channel UK's Mud Men preview]

"In, As You Say, the Mud"*

A friend of mine shared an article on Facebook some time ago that captured my interest in an enthusiast form of archaeology for the masses called "mudlarking."

Mudlarking . . . such a delightfully British word.
Its definition is a verb meaning to scrape about in the mud of a riverbank during low tide with the objective of looking for valuable "trash" deposited in the sediment. Traditionally the mudlark looked for items with monetary value, but in more recent times these treasure hunters are also seeking items with cultural value.

The specific name for this activity has its roots in the nineteenth-century professional mudlarks (or "mudlarkers," I've seen them called both) who were often lower class children or women, digging with the desperation of hunger to find lumps of coal or precious metal items that they could sell or trade for food and other necessities. [Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor: A Cyclop√¶dia of the Condition and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Those That Cannot Work, And Those That Will Not Work, Volume IV, in four volumes, (London: 1861-1862), p. 366-367, 371.] Charles Dickens likewise wrote a short story, “Young Mr. Nightingale,” about a boxing match between a baker and a mudlark in All The Year Round (November 29, 1873). Some of the period illustrations of nineteenth-century mudlarks are collected by this blog author here.

One article that I read, stated that one can still list "Mudlark" as an official professional title in Britain, but another source claimed the job title went out in the 1900s. Either way, there are still people who can be thought of as professional mudlarks in London today. They are bound in a fraternity known as the Society of Thames Mudlarks, who with metal detectors in hand unearth relics. They differ from their amateur counterparts because they are required to have a license from the Port Authority of London to dig in special areas along the bank. The tongue-in-cheek amusement you may find on the home page of The Thames and Field Metal Detecting Society 
will turn to amazement when you scroll down the page to see their treasure haul.
Possibly every child who dreamt of buried pirate treasure should admire the discoveries of these excavators in the Thames who have found coins from all time periods since the Romans ruled in Londinium, to antique weapons, jeweled Anglo-Saxon necklaces, to a prize collection of gentleman's cuff links spanning the Capitol's conspicuous consumption from the seventeenth-century to the twentieth. There’s a wonderful homage to mudlarkers and their finds in the pictures on this blog entry. The British public’s recent interest in the phenomena of mudlarking is evident in the UK History Channel's reality TV show called “Mud Men.”

Trash Becomes Cultural Treasure
Two aspects fascinate me most about this subject. First, I have come to think of mudlarking as a form of poplar archaeology; in other words, people are out their consciously seeking old things buried in the banks of waterways for their heritage (and/or monetary) value.  Second, that the UK government is opening its eyes to the idea that cultural heritage can be preserved by asking mudlarks (professional and amateur) to record their finds of artifacts.  In Britain, the government actually wrote a law in 1996 called The Treasure Act which governs objects at least 300 years old or made of precious metal found in England or Wales (The laws are different in Scotland and Northern Ireland). See information at: http://finds.org.uk/treasure/advice/summary.
Four years ago, The British Museum established a department that focuses solely on Portable Antiquities, and aides in recording cultural artifacts that a member of the public might find on their own property, on public lands, or on the river bank. The folks at the British Museum who administer the Portable Antiquities scheme have several jobs. They monitor for the possible illegal sale of archaeological artifacts and/or treasures at antique shops and online through websites like EBay.com.  

I checked the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s online database and already 146 cases of treasure finds have been recorded for 2011 with 53358 objects recorded; last year, there were 233,345 objects recorded throughout England and Wales. Many of these finds are not the result of mudlarking. The Portable Antiquities Scheme website has made it easier for the British public to report archaeological objects that they have found either by accident or by design. The reports and statistics suggest that the legal actions to create a system to record cultural heritage discoveries is actually fueling an interest in public archaeology and of voluntary efforts to record when and where an artifact was discovered. (see a discussion of the release of the 2008 report from the British Museum: http://finds.org.uk/news/stories/article/id/214).
The British Museum’s success with the Portable Antiquities project staged an exhibit called "Buried Treasure" in 2004. (See an online version of major treasure finds that were featured in the exhibit here. Several reviews gave me a feel for this exhibit including a National Geographic article (fall 2004) on Society of Thames Mudlarks and their finds and a review from Archaeology Magazine (Volume 57 Number 2, March/April 2004).
My foray into the history and culture of mudlarking in the past and present has caused me to think about how my own nation deals with artifacts found on public and private property. The mish-mash of state and federal laws in the United States, requires a degree in law to figure out who potential owns a find and likely supports the career of armies of attorneys.  My country’s laws are based upon English Common Law from the 18th century but there is nothing so neatly universal at the The Treasure Act of 1996 here. A lawyer penning an article on this subject for the Archaeological Institute of America in 2000 was quite happy to pronounce the various treasure trove laws in some States dead, writing that “Rejection of the rules that reward finders at the expense of landowners also strengthens anti-looting provisions, and discourages casual, but potentially destructive unplanned searches. Indeed, removal of artifacts from the soil is now recognized in the majority of states either as illegal severance of chattels, trespass, or theft. Modern [U.S.] law has recognized and resolved the problem, leaving no room for royal prerogatives (online at Archaeology, “Online Features,” February 7, 2000).

In a world so interconnected through information, I think it is important to cherish the artifacts of the past for all of their complexity and cultural meaning. We inherit not only the gold coins and riches from past cultures, but also the refuse of our predecessors’ daily existences, like toothbrushes, pottery jars, and trappings of status. It is the brush with the past and the potential for great stories, if only the objects could talk. If only we would listen.
Here are a three more personal accounts of mudlarking to whet your appetite:
The author of the “Number One London” blog write about an encounter with mudlarks on the Thames. A journalist for the UK newspaper,
 The Independent, writes about the buried treasure allure of mudlarking in  “The Thames: Another tide, another secret” (from 11 September 2005). And, last but not least, a New York Times Magazine correspondent also posted a nicely-illustrated, curious tourist’s guide to mudlarking in this article.

*Title quotation source: Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (New York : Harmony Books, 1980).

31 July 2011

New collage box

I recently finished a hand-made-from-scratch box which was a birthday gift for a friend who runs marathons.

Personally, I cannot imagine what physical discpline it takes to finish a grueling 26.2 mile race. Anyone who does this is a model of endurance.

So it's no surprise the medals given to those who make it across the finish line are huge.

I give you, Jen's Marathon Bling Box.




Happy Birthday to an amazing hero!

29 July 2011

Elephant Seal Sumo Wrestling

I could not resist posting this series of photographs I took on California's Central Coast a few weeks ago.  These are huge Elephant Seals doing battle in the waves for Survival of the Fittest.

I think their version of sumo wrestling is amazing to watch.

Meanwhile on shore, one of the regal and enormous males leans back his head and roars . . .

On land this creatures seem ungainly, but truly they look so powerful and wild.

If you want to know more about these fascinating marine mammals, check out the website of Friends of the Elephant Seal.  This organization has created the viewing area on the coast where I took these photographs.

26 July 2011


This is a recent photograph of two ravens at  Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park to whet your appetite.

I've been slow to post lately because I was traveling in California earlier this month. While I was away, I photographed crows and ravens as part of a personal quest I'm undertaking. I've made it my mission to study my finely black-feathered friends as part of a project that is part artistic and part scholarly.

You will see some of the fruits of my project here on Pull of the Tides in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, I am in the final stages of a draft article on a topic that is proving to be far more interesting than I could possibly have imagined when I began researching it: mudlarking.

If you are wondering what the heck this is, or are curious just what I'm going on about, check out this well-illustrated New York Times article.

More very soon,

22 June 2011

Trying on a "Seasonal Wardrobe"

A friend of mine told me about artist Michelle Ward, and her online project Green Pepper Press Street Team. Each month, Michelle issues a challenge with a different theme to artists in the blogosphere. Those who choose to participate in that month's challenge simple create a response and post it on their own blog, which is, in turn, linked to the Green Pepper Press Street Team site.

My friend knows that I have an interest in nature and the seasons, so she thought I would enjoy the current challenge which is about the artist's "Seasonal Wardrobe." Michelle asks if the shift in season is reflected in your art, just as you shift your choice of clothing to adjust the change in seasons.

For me, this is certainly true. I tend to shift not only the clothes I wear in the summer to thinner, more breathable fabrics to match the swampy climate of the Chesapeake Bay region. I also change the colors I wear, I find myself favoring lighter colors -- although not typically pastels (not big on pastels, except powder blue, maybe.) In the autumn, my clothing colors are fruitier and richer just like the world outside.

Likewise, the colors I might choose for a mixed media art project also reflect seasonal palettes.

My visual response to this Green Pepper Press Street Team Challenge No. 52 is displayed above; I wanted to capture in mixed media what my summertime palette looks like. (If you like, click on the image twice to make it bigger.)

I started out with four basic colors that said "summer" to me, a mustard yellow, aqua blue, leafy green, and raspberry red. I made a circular element in the center and surrounded it with four arcs. I guess this is a solar motif. Then I added a wave pattern along the bottom. Then I began adding elements, until finally I decided on a fantasy theme with an enchanted walled garden surrounding an exotic palace. Just the sort of Orientalist fairy tale I loved in my youth, in keeping with the mood of summer's sensuous illusions.

This led me to think naturally of One Thousand and One Nights, the famous collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian folktales (also called Arabian Nights by some.}

I own an old child's edition of Arabian Nights that I bought from a used book store on the cheap months ago, with the thought towards cutting quotations from the text for collage elements. I flipped through the book until I found the phrase about the fish of four colors. That sort of jived with the collage fish I had already included and crackle-painted over at the bottom. I actually bought brads in the shape of mini-fishes for the little guys jumping around in the upper left quadrant of the page. The palace illustration is a collage element from the book, that I hand-colored.

Wow! Stepping back, I realize that this is the first time I have done collage or mixed media work in nearly a year. It is rather a relief to find I do have the space in my life to make art again.

Perhaps my image is like a celebratory dance of freedom after leaving a complicated year behind me in the dust. I didn't realize how much I needed to do this again.

03 June 2011

Glastonbury: A Pilgrim's Tale

The day was cloudy, but the wind was gentle, though it whispered that autumn was just around the corner as it blew. I can remember looking up ahead and feeling goosebumps at the sight of the great mound rising in the distance, topped by a slightly leaning tower from a distant age.

I had not seen this sight in more than twenty years, but the last time left a deep impression. Then, as a college student in the 1980s, my trip to this place consisted of a brief bus stop of a few hours on a trek around England's counties of Wiltshire and Salisbury Plain. You may know the tourist routine: Cotswold villages, Bath, Stonehenge, with a brief pause in Glastonbury.

Now, I fully appreciated that the muddy track through rolling hills and at the edge of cultivated fields is the best way to approach Glastonbury Tor. You leave behind the bustling town, tourist buzz, and New Age mecca by turning down a lane. Then you pass by cottages and make your way along the public footpath that sets out towards the pastures.

Setting out to walk the path in a long spiral up the Tor put me in the mind of pilgrims on a journey to a holy site. It's not the 15th century tower on top of the Tor that's "holy". No, what is so magical about this place is that the hill itself seems alive with the memory of human visitors from long before there was an England all the way to the present moment.

Livestock roamed the hillsides and the farm lands felt weighty, holding the promise of the harvest soon to come. Flowers bloomed and the ever-present mist of the English air. Occasionally we climbed over the barriers between the fences to keep the cattle and sheep on one side or the other. My husband and I chatted happily as we walked, but shared long moments of silence as we just admired the beauty of the gracefully climbing landscape before us. I breathed in the rich smell of mud.

At the base of the Tor, we were met by a raven, black as jet, who "Quorked" brusquely at us. This creature was not just any raven, but a very large and apparently sentient Raven. We snickered to ourselves about the sheer Celtic hilarity of encountering this noisy critter at a liminal place where pasture met the Tor. We decided he must be the Gatekeeper and so asked his permission if we could climb. The Raven must have determined we meant no harm, for he stopped "Quorking" and went back to foraging for seeds.

So we climbed and passed through the gate.

Stairs rose and meandered upward along the steep body of the Tor. It is not long before we felt the wind pick up with no trees to arrest its progress. The way became harder as our muscles and breath adjusted themselves to the effort. There are benches for the weary or pensive to sit upon.

Your payoff for the climb of Glastonbury Tor is a stunning vista of three counties reaching in all directions. There is no wonder that this hill is so significant because of its obvious strategic location. The other layer of significance lies in the Tor's folklore and mythology. The Celtic legends about the place mention the Lord of the Underworld and Fairy King, Gwyn ap Nudd, used the Tor as an entrance to his realm, Annwn. Other Britons may have associated Glastonbury Tor with the Isle of Avalon and the legend of their great chieftain, or King Arthur.

The Romans built fortifications on the Tor with their typical practicality; archaeologists have excavated the remains. In Christian centuries, locals built a church to honor the warrior Archangel St. Michael. Only the tower remains of the medieval church, but the austerity of the open stonework can still inspire, by the very fact that it lifts your eyes to the heavens.*

We remained aloft for some time, just absorbing the vista of red roofed cottages, roads, and farm land. But as we began to descend the other side of the Tor, again something unexpected happened.

We knew about the cows.

Glastonbury Tor is a place where cow herds roam freely, because it is grazing land as well as being a tourist attraction. What we did not expect was a Giant Bull, black as midnight, literally barring our path.

I have never been this close to a bull before. And I can say after this experience I would not want to be a bull fighter. It's not that this particular bull was aggressive, but he stared you down and made you feel like he meant business. He was the Guardian of the Descent, just as the Raven had been Gatekeeper of the Ascent.

The Giant Bull took his time moving, such that we and other visitors that morning had to gingerly walk off the path around him. His harem of cows wandered by us blithely grazing not paying us humans any mind at all. The Giant Bull stood his ground as if he owned the place.

We winded onward and downward, back to a more present reality. My heart and mind felt moved by my visit to the Tor that day.

It is a pilgrim's tale, I freely share with you.

*An excellent history of the Tor is written by a Professor of Archaeology, Philip Rahtz, Glastonbury (London: B. T. Batsford Ltd/English Heritage, 1993). Professor Rahtz covers the mythology and folklore of the historic sites of the town, including the Tor and provides a scientific perspective based upon the excavations as well as documentary evidence on the site.