Featured Writer: Poet Kate Hanson Foster’s Craft Essay “Crow Funerals and the Loss of Meaning”

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Kate Hanson Foster

Crow Funerals
and the Loss of Meaning

“Rooks have Returned” by Alexei Kondratievich Savrasov

“Do crows mourn their dead?” a poster of an online video asked.

The video was called “Crow Funeral.” Hundreds of crows came together among a cluster of trees. Deep-throated kraa kraa kraa calls, so achingly cacophonous that they echoed off one another, swelled, amplifying their distress. Some swooped down to the ground briefly, only to quickly retreat back to the safety of a tree branch. Others wavered from tree to tree in restless agitation. The seated crows on higher branches were eerily sober and quiet, as if it was their role to bear silent witness to the event.

The source of this whole spectacle? A single dead crow on the side of the road below.

Kate Hanson Foster

I began to wonder why humans tend to anthropomorphize what have such deep need for—ritual, ceremony, and above all, meaning. And to make matters worse, the ominous crow, with its shiny black plumage, already so laden with myth and lore and legend—could it be, that in their own sophisticated awareness, they have a built-in need to make sense of life and death?

These were some heavy thoughts for a woman on maternity leave with her second child. I was fresh in the early weeks of blurry, fragmented motherhood. An hour or two of sleep here and there. A quick bite of food if I had the energy to make it. The endless cycle of breastfeeding, consoling, and changing the baby. The strange capacity to hold joy and hopelessness, simultaneously, and with equal measure.  Soon, the baby would wake from her nap. There wasn’t enough time to shower. And so I watched the crow funeral repeatedly on my computer until my husband got home from work, carrying the toddler from daycare.

I followed this routine for a long time. In the small, serendipitous opportunities of postpartum individual thought, I thought about crow funerals. I ordered books about crows online. I read all of the crow poems. I told myself, when you can write again, you are going to write something about crow funerals. But what about them, exactly? Maybe it was the word “funeral” that I was stuck on—the symbolic activity of family and community publicly expressing their emotions, and with that, declaring belief or ideas of afterlife. Funerals are our way of finding closure after death, but also comfort that there may be something more. Something more. We want to awaken ourselves to an objective Truth, or to quote T.S. Eliot, find “the still point in the turning world”—an anchor to settle the sense of chaos that death can often reignite.

Maybe it was because I felt something like a bird. Having children tapped into primal instincts I never felt before. Pregnancy and childbirth is a mindless, algorithmic process of biological design. My body simply knew what to do without my instruction, and I took some comfort in what I wholly felt was my one and only job. Keep the children alive. Nourish them. Protect them. Eventually, I became pregnant with my third child, and once again, began “nesting—” that instinctual urgency to prepare, organize, and clean the house. Yes, I knew what it meant to make life while simultaneously possessing a feral fear of losing it.

You would be crazy to write about crows, I told myself. There is nothing new to say about them. But a murder of crows had suddenly nested in the woods behind my house. Where did they come from? Why now, as I sit buried in books on crows and collecting articles on crow funerals? My new neighbors scolded me every time I walked in and out of the house. Each time they announced my presence, I saw it as a sign that I should be writing. A sign.

I was crazy to think I could write about crows because I was, in fact, going crazy. It is still difficult to write about what happened after my third child was born, mostly because the details are filmy and far away now. I resort to my journals to remember. It started with a constant surge of adrenaline—my body chemically coping with an emergency that wasn’t happening 24 hours a day. Then came pain—excruciating, unexplainable pain that twisted its spurs into the right side of my abdomen all day long. I remember many days making dinner for the kids with an ice pack strapped to my side. Other parts of my body would sporadically go numb without warning. My right leg, in particular, always felt just vaguely there—the symmetry of simple feeling gone off somewhere. I remember my husband calling an ambulance in the middle of the night because I felt confused—I thought I was slurring my speech and having a stroke. I remember uncontrollably shaking in my living room at 3am and begging the police officers to turn down their walkie-talkies because I didn’t want them to wake and scare the children. I could go on and on about this period of time. The endless debilitating panic. The time I couldn’t eat for days because all of my teeth were throbbing in pain. Sometimes it felt that I couldn’t eat without choking. Sometimes I simply choked on the crew cut of my tee-shirt. I bought pink tinted glasses because I couldn’t look at lights without dizzy spells. My ears were always ringing. I had this heavy, thick feeling in my head like at any moment I would just black out, and I would be unresponsive on the floor—my children too young to understand and save us. One time I left an entire cart of groceries in the last aisle the market because my thighs suddenly felt a rush of warmth and I was convinced I had peed my pants. You’re okay you’re okay you’re okay you’re okay you’re okay I remember repeating as I ran across the parking lot and then strapped the baby into her car seat. I slowly drove us home, white knuckled, the road a gray sludge before me. I’m okay I’m okay I’m okay I’m okay, I continued repeating until I pulled into the driveway, ran inside, and asked my husband to get the baby out of the car.

I saw all the doctors. A rheumatologist for suspected autoimmune disease, a neurologist to test for Multiple Sclerosis, a pain specialist for a potential neuropathy. I went through three primary cares and three therapists, tried acupuncture, meditation and yoga. I even saw a gastroenterologist and had a colonoscopy and an endoscopy. All because no doctor could commit to diagnosing what wasn’t “garden variety” mental illness. I followed referral after referral until I became buried in medical bills and hopelessness. I was certain that was I going to die, leave three small children behind, and there wasn’t a single doctor that could save me. There is a term for all this, I would later learn, a pathetically apathetic term for what was ruining my body and my life: Postpartum Anxiety. A diagnosis that when spoken, leads most people to understand that I had the slight misfortune of becoming a little nervous since becoming a mom.

Mental illness can quickly lead someone to toss aside that there is “meaning” in anything. At no point did I feel like I was under some watchful ambiguous protection. I wasn’t even under a doctor’s protection. I did the research and diagnosed myself. I called my therapist late one night and begged to be put on a medication that I had read about online. Slowly, with my own direction and supervision of myself, my body began to heal. I was ready to write again. Now I had to marry the mystery of the crow funeral and the neurological wiring of birds to my simultaneous neurological unwiring. This would be the book that I would write. A book that evaluates, wonders, and wrestles with the spirit in a world that I had decided had little meaning at all.

The truth is, the crows aren’t conducting a funeral. It didn’t take long in my research to learn that—just a long time for me to believe it. When they notice one of their own has fallen, their instinct is simply to react—alert one another that something potentially dangerous has happened. They use “social learning” to navigate their lives which is heavy on observation and imitation. Crow and human behavior are strikingly similar. Their social lives are complex, they are incredibly street smart, and they never forget a face. And so when I walked outside and met the krah krah krah acknowledgement when I was taking out the trash or checking my mailbox, I began to feel the crows and I had something of a relationship. They knew me as the lady who sometimes left the house, and I knew them as the birds that stayed with me through the hardest personal crisis I have ever endured.

“Ruine am Meer” by Arnold Böcklin

How do you write poems in a world with no meaning? When poems long for the truth of our existence, they become unusual instruments that make music with these fundamental questions. When I could write again, I wrote elegies for the dead, religion, spirituality, the self, and most of all, my mind. I wrote poems dismissing “meaning” as I once understood it—this construct concluded from a certain set of metaphysical “signs.” And so my writing simultaneously accepted and rejected God and meaning, attempting to create an unexplainable sense of exactness—a perfect response to meaninglessness in language. Sometimes I wrote and felt the words were being pulled from something or somewhere outside of my own mind. I looked down and thought, did I write that, or is something godly at work? Maybe the poems were nothing more than creative artifacts of my mind designing through chaos. Maybe that’s what all poems are.

Would you believe me if I told you that once I completed the manuscript and titled it “Crow Funeral,” the crows behind my house up and left the nest? No—you would likely say an owl entered the nesting area. The foraging was no longer favorable. The crows, like life, had to move on. And you would doubt that there was any meaning to the timing at all. The simple act of doubt—that strange mid point between God and chance, reason and reverie—that is the pause to be savored.

 

About the writer:
Kate Hanson Foster‘s first book of poems, Mid Drift, was published by Loom Press and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Center for the Book Award in 2011. Her work has appeared in Birmingham Poetry Review, Comstock Review, Harpur Palate, Poet Lore, Salamander, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. Foster was recently awarded the NEA Parent Fellowship through the Vermont Studio Center.

Image 1: Rooks have Returned” by Alexei Kondratievich Savrasov (1830-1897). Oil on canvas. 24.4 x 19 inches. 1871. Public domain.

Image 2: Courtesy of Kate Hanson Foster

Image 3: “Ruine am Meer” by Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901). Oil on canvas. 43.7. .32.2 inches. 1881. Public domain.