In his 1977 essay ‘Why Look at Animals?’ John Berger concludes with the image of human visitors to a zoo, peering through the bars at listless specimens. But it is not only the animals that have been caged – ‘As for the crowds, they belong to a species which has at last been isolated.’1
In our industrialised world, unless we are very fortunate, or unless we have chosen to live in an appropriate place in an appropriate way, encounters with wild animals (as opposed to pets or livestock) are likely to be extremely rare. This is doubly true of those electrifying moments of felt connection when in close proximity to a creature, rather than when simply observing from afar like a covert documentarist through the prophylactic of the lens.
I live in a semi-rural district in the western part of the main island of Japan, in a basin ringed by mountains. At my local Shintō shrine in the foothills, I once saw a large dun snake setting itself out in smoothly repeating S’s as it crossed the path. It had begun to ascend a slope on the far side when I reached out – unthinkingly, foolishly – and lightly stroked its receding tail. The reaction was instant. Head whipped round, body coiling. Tongue flickering, dark eyes locked on mine. I stood transfixed, snake-charmed by its monitoring stare, the exhilaration shuddering through my body only slowly focusing to a thought: might it actually be dangerous? After all, Japan has its fair share of vipers. It was only when I broke eye contact that it finally uncoiled and slid away through the dead leaves. Later, with the help of various field guides, I decided it had (possibly) been the non-venomous, unaggressive species, Euprepiophis conspicillatus.
A cold, sharp morning in early spring. I was walking past the rubbish piled up for collection outside my apartment block, when a weasel darted out. I froze. It froze. We regarded each other warily, the sense of stilled time heightened by the clear air. Less than a metre separated us. I didn’t want it to run out into the road. Relaxing my body, I showed it my empty palms and nodded. It moved on into the bushes, unhurried, its sinuous body looping away like the missing link between the snake and the fox.
Brief, thrilling encounters with the other-than-human. But what exactly did they signify, these meetings of eyes? Was anything communicated other than mutual shock? For John Berger there is always a barrier between species, especially given the impossibility of linguistic exchange – ‘The animal scrutinises [the man] across a narrow abyss of non-comprehension…The man too is looking across a similar, but not identical, abyss…’2 It further seems to me that this abyss, as we experience it, is not of uniform dimensions; there is a hierarchy at work. Do we not sense less non-comprehension (which is not necessarily equivalent to ‘more comprehension’) in the warm mammalian eyes of a weasel or dolphin than in the unflinching stare of a reptile? While the panda elicits love with its mournful gaze, the compound eyes of the praying mantis give nothing back but our own miniaturised reflections. Both may involve an emotional projection, but the results are qualitatively different.
Insects, of course, are one of those classes of wild animal that surround us all the time in our daily lives, though we are barely conscious of them. We may not watch them, but they watch us – or smell us, or detect our body heat. The Aves, the birds, are another such class. More familiar, more readily observable than the insects perhaps, but placed just beyond our reach by their occupancy of the air, pushed vaguely to the fringes of our awareness. Unless we pay special attention, or unless one happens to defecate on our heads, the bird blends into the landscape like a piece of dancing vegetation.
If London is a metropolis of pigeons, Tokyo is a megalopolis of crows. There are two resident species in Japan, the Carrion (Corvus corone) and the Large-Billed (Corvus macrorhynchos). It is the latter, sometimes known in English as the Jungle Crow, that is predominant in Tokyo, having seamlessly swapped its native habitat of trees and forests for the pylons and rooftops of the city. Naturally enough, considering their larger body size and territorial requirements, the corvid population is tiny compared to the hundreds of thousands of pigeons that inhabit the UK capital – in 2001 the Tokyo Metropolitan Government put its number at 36,400.3 This is almost certainly a gross underestimation, however, as the census was based solely on communal winter roosting sites generally favoured by juvenile birds, and omitted adults that bedded down in their own territories and birds that only ‘commuted’ into the city from outlying districts during the day.4
Whatever the official figures, Tokyo is undeniably a city haunted by crows – a host of jagged holes cut from its concrete. For these are not birds that stay obediently on the periphery. No longer carrion on the forest floor, now the rich pickings of garbage bags. No twig or branch to build a nest, now a lattice of wire coat hangers. In a country where the tumble dryer is still a rarity, clothing is aired outdoors, not on rope washing lines but on coat hangers slung on poles. Crows either steal these directly from laundry baskets left out on balconies, or even slip off drying shirts with their beaks and make off with the booty. Some 270 metal hangers have been discovered in one large nest.5 That is some prolific larceny. And the solution to such lawbreaking? Extermination.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government began its cull in 2001 by trapping 4,210 crows (and here we are on firmer statistical ground). A peak was reached in 2003, with 18,761 individuals disposed of in a single year, while the figure for 2014 was 11,373. Over the course of fourteen years, the Metropolitan Government has destroyed 193,395 birds and claims (again, probably erroneously) that the crow population now stands at 14,900 (as of 2014).6
It is easy to sanction the eradication of an animal that has become a nuisance to humans, even easier when that animal has traditionally been considered a malign force. In common with many cultures of the West, where the crow is wreathed in a distinctly satanic air, the Japanese do not, as a rule, look favourably upon this scavenger of decaying flesh. It was once said that if a crow sang in a particularly unpleasant way, it signalled somebody’s imminent demise.
But, personally, I’ve always loved the black bird – loved that plumage with its iridescent sheen, as though all the world’s chromatic information were somehow condensed inside; loved too the range of its voice, the throaty trills and guttural caws. Japan’s Jungle Crow is a particularly impressive beast, its wingspan of 105cm larger than that of the Carrion, its forehead higher and more pronounced, as if adapted for headbutting, its beak huge, the upper mandible hooked and gothic. This is a bird with its dinosaur genes dominant, the bird I envisage when I read Ted Hughes’ wonderful Crow poems, or listen to the anarchic swirl of sounds on the album Karasu (‘Crow’) by the Japanese Noise practitioner Merzbow. Nor am I alone in my adoration of the dark trickster. In a kind of backlash against traditional demonisation, recent years have seen a publishing boom in books about the crow in particular, and corvids more generally. All attest to their incredible ingenuity and intelligence.
So how did I go from such rapture to fantasies of plucking one of the bastards out of the air and stamping its skull into the asphalt? Because, gentle reader, I was stalked.
I earn my living as a teacher in a small private English school that occupies three floors of a narrow five-storey building. On the roof is a mobile-phone antenna, next to the building itself a small park with a pond and trees – cherry, pine, Chinese tallow and deodar cedar. Although there is a lift, I always use the metal outer staircase and was walking up it one spring day several years ago, when a crow landed just above me on the balustrade. An agitated crow, cawing loudly. Strange, I thought, do they normally get this close? Still, lessons to teach, planning to do. I carried on upwards. Another crow alighted. Two of them now, puffing up their bodies, wings half-raised, neck-feathers ruffled, throats disgorging aggressive shrieks. And their eyes flashed. Across that blank gap in understanding their outrage leapt.
I should have backed down and taken the lift. But singing ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ with a group of recalcitrant toddlers on a daily basis doesn’t put you in the best of moods. Damn their outrage, I was in charge here. Besides, these weren’t those big jungle bruisers they have up in Tokyo. These were smaller Carrion Crows, birds that prefer to forage on arable land. Shooing them away with a folder and an expletive, I continued my ascent.
The first time it happened I dismissed it as mere coincidence. A rush of wind at the back of my head as I walked to work, a crow suddenly on the telephone wire directly above me. The second time I began to feel afraid. The swoop was always from behind, always unexpected, the crow appearing from nowhere. It was this unpredictability that was so unnerving; there was never any actual body contact, just a poltergeist push of air and a hunched, glowering bird that had teleported into existence.
For several weeks the intimidation continued. These sharp animals had marked me out as a threat, memorising my face and gait (a sunhat proved to be an inadequate disguise). A single crow would harass me anywhere near the school (even up to fifty metres away), but the mating pair would combine to confront me on the staircase. I became a habitual user of the elevator. I took to carrying a furled umbrella over one shoulder for protection, like some ornithophobic Dick Whittington. This was definitely not the kind of intimate encounter with the Other that I had sought. I wondered if they were nesting on the roof or in the park – at any rate, somewhere accessible to the Authorities. I pondered the allure of the cull… I felt powerless, cursed and, above all, indignant.
Indignation arises easily from a hierarchical mode of thinking (this should not be happening to me, of all animals). Yes, we permit some creatures to be exceptional and highly intelligent, but only if their qualities can be neatly defined in human terms. In 2012 a book was published with the title, Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans.7 What a condescending title, with its magnanimous ‘allow’; the creation of the marketing department perhaps, but I still have no intention of ever reading the book. A pithier expression of this strange mix – of anthropocentrism, of the simultaneous exaltation and sly disparagement of certain species – is from The Onion, in a headline dated 30th August 2000: ‘Dolphins Evolve Opposable Thumbs’. The article quotes a certain Dr. Aoki – ‘I believe I speak for the entire human race when I say, “Holy fuck”… That’s it for us monkeys.’8
There are, however, other ways of looking at animals. The poet Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) revolutionised the Japanese haiku. Prior to his mature work, this short form of seventeen syllables had been a vehicle for classical allusions and sophisticated puns, the pursuit of witty, elegant minds. It was Bashō who transformed it into a high art, often simple and objective in tone, grounded firmly in the world of lived experience. The biographer Ueda Makoto identifies a haiku written in 1680 as a key turning point, a poem ‘…with which it is said Bashō came into his own.’9
On a bare branch
A crow is perched –
What is this all about? There is a suggestion, almost melancholy, of passing time – the day is ending, the year is dying, leaves have fallen, the world is shutting down. The crow too is transient, having settled momentarily on the tree, its stark blackness about to be subsumed in the larger blackness of the night. All beings, the reader included, are implicated in this endless flowing away…
And yet to analyse most haiku in this manner is to overburden them with a metaphorical weight they do not require. A haiku does not need to mean something, it already is something. A steady gaze at the is-ness of things. Not the crow as mischievous god, aspirant humanoid, antisocial vermin or horror movie prop. The crow as a crow on a branch at dusk, perfectly adequate in itself. In these days of late, diseased capitalism, when mankind’s isolation can feel depressingly complete, the sensibility of the haiku offers a path back to the unadorned mystery of the world.
My stalking by crows lasted less than a month. By summer the chicks had fledged, and although I frequently saw the family group in the park, they paid me no attention. Later that year, a city maintenance crew lopped off the crowns of several deodar cedars immediately adjacent to the school. Their drooping foliage had become entangled in overhead power cables. In one tree was an old nest of twigs, not a wire coat hanger in sight. It was exactly level with the windows of the classroom. They had been watching me through the glass the entire time.
- From ‘Why Look at Animals?’ in Berger, John, About Looking, Bloomsbury, London, 2009, p.28
- Ibid., p.5
- Bureau of Environment, Tokyo Metropolitan Government, http://www.kankyo.metro.tokyo.jp/nature/animals_plants/crow/jyokyo/index.html [Accessed 28 November 2015]. Data only available in Japanese.
- Matsuda, Michio, Karasu wa Naze Tōkyō ga Suki nanoka [Why Do Crows Like Tokyo?], Heibonsha, Tokyo, 2006, pp.286-289
- Imaizumi, Tadaaki, Karasu Kyōsōkyoku (Crow’s Rhapsody), Tōkyō-dō Shuppan, Tokyo, 2004, p.33
- Bureau of Environment, op. cit.
- Marzluff, John and Tony Angell, Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans, Free Press, New York, 2012
- ‘Dolphins Evolve Opposable Thumbs,’ The Onion, Vol. 36, Issue 30, 30 Aug. 2000, http://www.theonion.com/article/dolphins-evolve-opposable-thumbs-284 [Accessed 28 November 2015]
- Ueda, Makoto, Matsuo Bashō, Kodansha International, Tokyo, 1982, p.44
- Translation by Ueda, ibid.
Dark Mountain: Issue 9 (PDF)
The Spring 2016 issue is a collection of writing and artwork that responds to the idea of 'humbleness'.Read more