Though people generally do not think of them in such terms, crows are remarkably graceful: from the tip of a crow's beak to the end of its tail is a single curve, which changes rhythmically as the crow turns its head or bends toward the ground. Foraging on their long, powerful legs, crows appear to glide over the earth; they take flight almost without effort, flapping their wings easily, ascending into the air like spirits. Nevertheless, the whiskers around their beaks and an apparent smile make crows, in a scruffy sort of way, endearingly 'human'. In a vast range of cultures from the Chinese to the Hopi Indians, crows are bearers of prophecy. Because of their courtship dances and monogamous unions, the Greeks invoked crows at weddings as symbols of conjugal love. Crows are among the most ubiquitous of birds, yet, without being in the least exotic, they remain mysterious. This book is a survey of crows, ravens, magpies and their relatives in myth, literature and life. It ranges from the raven sent out by Noah to the corvid deities of the Eskimo, to Taoist legends, Victorian novels and contemporary films. It will be of interest to all people who have ever been intrigued, puzzled, annoyed or charmed by these wonderfully intelligent birds.
Our stories begin long before we are born, and contain more than we can ever know. I have told the story of my early years in the book Stealing Fire: A Boyhood in the Shadow of Atomic Espionage, which will be published by Ad Infinitum Books in 2012. But when I look back, I find myself asking, "Was that really me?"
I first became interested in animals around the end of the 1980's, not terribly long after I had obtained my Ph.D. in German and intellectual history. I was feeling frustrated in my search for an academic job and even the study of literature. By accident, I came across an encyclopedia of animals that had been written in the early nineteenth century. There, without any self-consciousness, was a new world of romance and adventure, filled with turkeys that spoke Arabic, beavers that build like architects, and dogs that solve murders. Within a few months, I had junked my previous research and devoted my studies to these texts.
Today, I shudder how nervy the switch was for a destitute young scholar, who, despite one book and several articles, had not managed to obtain any steady job except mopping floors. But soon I had managed to publish two books on animals in literature, The Frog King (1990) and The Parliament of Animals (1992). Around 1995, I founded Nature in Legend and Story (NILAS, Inc.), an organization that combines storytelling and scholarship. It was initially a rag-tag band of intellectual adventurers who loved literature but could not find a niche in the scholarly world. We put together a few conferences, which generated a lot of excitement among attendees but little notice in academia or in what they sometimes call "the real world."
From fables and anecdotes, I moved to mythology, and published The Serpent and the Swan (1997), a study of animal bride tales from around the world. This was followed by many further publications including an examination of the darker side of animal studies, Animals in theThird Reich (2000), and a sort of compendium, The Mythical Zoo (2002). This was followed by a cultural history of corvids entitled Crow (2003).
In late September 2011 I published a book entitled City of Ravens: London, it's Tower, and its Famous Birds. It solves the old mystery of how and when ravens came to the Tower of London. Ulitimately, though, it is not about London or even the ravens. The larger theme is the way human being - and tribes or nations - construct their identities by reference to animals. Instead of writing a more conventionally academic treatise, I have tried to show this in large part through images - ravens returning to London after an absence of nearly two centuries and greeted by their brethern in the Tower.
When I embarked on the study of animals in myth and literature, even graduate students in the field did not have to mention a few dozen books just to show that they had read them. In barely more than a couple of decades, the literature on human-animal relations has grown enormously in both quantity and sophistication. NILAS, I am proud to say, has become a well established organization.
But as the study of animals, what I like to call "nature narratives," becomes more of a standard feature of academic programs, I fear that something may be lost. It is now just a little too easy to discourse about the "social construction" and the "transgression" of "boundaries" between animals and human beings. Even as I admire the subtlety of such analysis, I sometimes find myself thinking, "So what?"
Having been there close to the beginning, part of my role is now to preserve some the sensuous immediacy that filled the study of animals in literature when that was still a novelty. That poetry is not simply a luxury in our intellectual pursuits. With such developments as cloning, genetic engineering, and the massive destruction of natural habitats, we face crises so unprecedented that traditional philosophies, from utilitarianism to deep ecology, can offer us precious little guidance. The possibilities are so overwhelming, that we hardly even know what questions to ask. But neither, I am sure, did the fugitive who once encountered a mermaid in the middle of the woods.
This year, 2010, I have also published a collection of poems and short stories entitled The Raven and the Sun, and in 2011 I will publish a memoir entitled Stealing Fire: A Childhood in the Shadow of Atomic Espionage. Both of these books are the culmination of decades of reflection, and I like to think they may open a new phase of my life. I am 61 now, and am as full of new plans and ideas as I have ever been; I can still do 100 push-ups. Much of the time, I still feel as though I were "just starting out."
But to understand where I am going, I need to look back, and the trials, mistakes, triumphs, mysteries, failures, ecstasies, frustrations, tragedies, stupidities, sacrifices, confusions, and dreams of six decades can be pretty confusing, even overwhelming. Teachers have to be role models, whether they want to or not. And do I make a good one? In some ways, I think, and for some people.
For most of my life, I have had to improvise and hustle to make an often precarious living, at times in ways that many academics might consider undignified. I have made more than my share of false starts. I can warn people about mistakes, because I have made so many different kinds: trusting the wrong people, not trusting others enough, being too carried away with abstractions, and so on.... But I have won several national awards for both teaching and scholarship, and have gained an international reputation as a writer, and my books have been translated into eight languages. It has been a very bumpy ride. Was it worth the trouble? Yes.
I have always looked on the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom as a calling, not simply a profession. To write only what truly interested me was not simply a pleasure or privilege; it was a duty. There is a deep feeling of peace in knowing that, in spite of pressures, I have never compromised this vocation very much or for very long. I resisted pressures to embrance many popular ideas, from veganism to communism, from deconstruction to laissez-faire capitalism. Many of my books and articles were turned down when I refused to make changes that the publishers demanded, but I always managed to publish them somewhere else in the end. Not many people in the world are blessed with the privilege of being able to do work that is interesting, original, or significant. I am one of them, and I claim a little bit of credit for this, but also acknowledge a great deal of luck.
Enough about the past! Unicorns, gryphins, cynocephali, merpeople, swan maidens, werewolves, sea serpents...--that is the sort of company that I keep right now. I have contracted to write a long book on these and other "imaginary animals" for Reaktion Books in London.