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Ghosts of Creatures Past

Lisa Couturier is the author of The Hopes of Snakes & Other Tales from the Urban Landscape (Beacon Press, 2006), a collection of essays that explores the relationship between the human and the nonhuman. She holds a master's degree from New York University and is a former articles editor and environmental writer. Her articles and essays have appeared in numerous national magazines and anthologies. In 2006 she was listed as a notable essayist in Best American Essays. She lives within the Agricultural Reserve in the countryside of Maryland.

Couturier Being the holiday season, it's a good time to share stories. I'd like to tell the story of my friends who congregate in our city near the Bed, Bath and Beyond. They know a good deal when they see it and will follow one another from Bed, Bath and Beyond to a free doughnut here or some French fries there, which will prompt them to fight and chase and play and scream at one another. Though they prefer to sleep in the city this wintry time of year, they spend the daylight hours out where I live now, in the country, where they work in the cornfields and in the woods. They commute, like many of us. A good chance to visit with them is in the late afternoon, when, on their way home, they stop here and there in and around the city's strip malls, where, though generally it's a good idea to avoid such chaos, I also occasionally stop, and spend time with my friends—these resourceful commuters, the crows.

I have two kids: I do a lot of stopping along the long list of things to do and places to be that my life has become. But stopping can be good. It forces me to attend to what is there. My daughter Madeleine’s ballet school, which was and still is buried behind franchise restaurants, boutiques, and the usual smattering of mega-stores, was also near Starbucks—how convenient—for my fill up of gingerbread latte. And of course the ubiquitous Bed, Bath and Beyond. It was after my scurrying through the autumn rains and winds, from store to store, with my younger daughter Lucienne, first as a baby, then a toddler, then a preschooler, in the carriage, on my hip, or riding piggy back, and it was after stocking up like a mama squirrel on all the treats the city stores offered, that Lucienne and I came to a different sort of stopping. While Madeleine pirouetted into the early evening, Lucienne and I piled our packages into our car parked behind Bed, Bath and Beyond, where we could sit. Where we could sip latte and suck lollipop. Where we could visit with our friends the crows.

Crow Crows who, being as adaptable and flexible—and thus intelligent—as they are with their food choices, had picked through the strip mall trash cans before gathering, at first by the hundreds and then by the thousands, in the trees and in the parking lot behind Bed, Bath and Beyond. You see, long before the mega stores and strip malls arrived, which would’ve been when I was a child not much older than my children, wide woods carpeted this current landscape of concrete and linoleum forest. On one the few remaining tracts of open land—shall we call it urban wilderness?—remains a country club built decades before the stores arrived alongside it, and which, inadvertently, had now become an island refuge for wildlife drowning in our seas of parking lots and roads and shops. The very same shops I was constantly and conveniently swimming through.

Forgive me my platitudes, but my memories of crows and cold weather are what stand out from those times: the shopping trips themselves are a blur. Maybe it was the juxtaposition of the rush hour and holiday traffic roaring on within earshot while Lucienne and I quietly steamed up the car windows watching the birds. We brought seeds and crackers. She'd open the sunroof and throw out to the crows her gifts to bring them closer. She was nearly four when she started feeding them and hadn't heard of Hitchcock's The Birds, or of Poe’s The Raven, or any of the bad things said about crows. Which perhaps was why she described the descent of fifty crows around the car, simply and amusingly, as black picnic napkins caught in the wind. Ballet would continue over the weeks and weeks, while Lucienne and I stopped to witness the wildness of crows, and to feast, one particular evening, on a larger picnic of experience.

The holidays were over. Without so much shopping to do, we spent more time in the peacefulness of—how ironic it started to seem to be—the car in a parking lot. It had snowed big, that January, making the crows stand out more starkly than usual on the grounds of the country club next to us, as though a high-contrast black and white documentary film was playing. As the weeks passed, grays and beiges and reds began to appear, seemingly all at once. A great horned owl hunkered down in a large bare tree, waiting to seize crow for dinner. Focused on pointing out the owl to Lucienne, and on preparing her for the possible predator/prey bloodshed that might ensue, she abruptly interrupted me to point out several deer entering the scene on stage left, where the trees were slim and scattered, and, then, just as suddenly, we saw two foxes flowing in a red stream of their own fur, in a serpentine sort of way, through the snow. All of this—this extraordinary reality of wild animals in a now ordinary and commonly overlooked landscape—took place behind the housewares mega-store, giving new and richer meaning to the word Beyond. Within a slight and fast few minutes, the foxes disappeared in a snowdrift, the deer wandered deeper into the woods, and the owl flew off. They were gone, and we were smart to have stopped and lucky to have seen them all—as though they were ghosts of creatures past.