Killing Prejudice


Hanging © Andrew Lewis

I think I’ve had it.  Forget this abortion we call civilization.

A few days ago our house sitter called all in a panic.  The vibe in the neighborhood was getting bad, she said.  The neighbor was upset because the birds were going to get his corn.  And they were loud.  Another was upset because they were flying to his house and shitting in his yard.  Another complained that one of the birds was calling outside her son’s window in a threatening way.

They’re birds.  Simply birds.  And they’re beautiful.  Beautiful when they squawk.  Beautiful when they fly.

They care for one another.  They don’t sell meth. They don’t kill their spouses or their young.  They don’t watch TV.  How many ways can I count my love for thee?

The following evening our neighbor returned one of the ravens to us.  It was threatening his corn, he said.  Never mind that his corn is only a couple inches high and that the birds don’t yet feed themselves.  

The bird was injured.  He wouldn’t take food and he couldn’t move his wings.  By the next morning he was dead.  Our house sitter buried him in the desert.

Every Hopi who’s heard of our raven adventure has expressed aversion.  Not just surprise, but something close to downright disgust.  They’re ugly black birds.  And they eat the corn.  I might as well tell folks that I’m raising rats.  

Last fall I found a bag of shotgun shells and a bottle of soda beneath the wash nest.  A farmer had perched on the bank and set to taking pot shots at the infants.  In talking to farmers here, they here don’t distinguish between the young and the adults.  They don’t even distinguish between the ravens and the crows.  How can they set to killing them? 

A farmer once told me that he crucified the “crows” in his field because, he said, “Crows are like Navajo. They’re afraid of their own dead.”

Funny.  True on some counts, but not on others.  First off, the things hanging in his field are ravens and not crows.  Secondly, I’m sure the ravens can recognize their dead.  And they probably know to steer clear.  But isn’t that a sign of a higher intelligence?  And shouldn’t intelligence of any sort be respected?  And then there’s the likening to Navajos. In contemporary Hopi culture, they’re seen as raiders and thieves.  I can’t speak for the Navajo, but the ravens out there are as much a part of the ecosystem.  And though Hopi trump all other human occupation on the plateau,  the ravens were here long before the Hopi.

But in some ways I get it.  Crucify the bird.  Set an example.  But do it with prudence.  And attention.  And thoughtful care.

I transplanted vegetable starts last week.  Within an hour the chickens had decimated them.  Chickens and children willfully trample our gardens.  But our first instinct isn’t to haphazardly kill them and hang them in a corn field.  

And christ, if you’re going to kill it, at least know whom it is you’re killing.  Know it by it’s name.  

No.  Our first option should be to figure it out.  In the garden incident, I erected a small chicken wire barrier around the vegetables.  In another, I might discuss the matter with the child. 

Isn’t it our responsibility to protect without killing?  If not, what are we then, but beasts?

Crucifixion © Andrew Lewis


Our neighbor worries that the ravens are eating his corn.  We try to ease his concerns.  The ravens are too young yet.  They can’t feed themselves.  They’re carnivores.  They don’t give a rip about his corn just coming up.

But preconceptions and prejudices are hard to break.  

Hopi don’t like black looking birds because they supposedly destroy their crops.  There’s a simple solution, however.  The best Hopi farmers plant extra for the rodents and birds.  In a resource rich environment predators cease to be a problem. 

In which case perhaps we need to unlearn our distrust.  Trust and distrust, afterall, are also learned responses.  Ideally we first learn trust.  When we come into the world our mothers and fathers greet us with love and caring, food and nurture. 

But if a harsh world greets us, we can just as easily  learn distrust.  A scary dog chases the chickens and they learn to fear dogs.  A farmer shoots ravens and they learn to steer clear of the farmers.  

More comes down yesterday on the other side of the fence.  Chester, the stray pit, ambles up and nuzzles him.  He’s already shown something like affection toward the birds.  I note the variety of species running and flitting about the yard and getting along.  Two varieties of chickens, hummingbirds, doves, cats, dogs, wild birds, ravens, humans.  We all largely mind our own business.  We’ve all learned that this is a resource abundant, safe environment and we respond accordingly.  Introduce hunger though, and hunger will breed desire, desire begets aggression and soon we’ll all be going at each other.

The ravens sit on the fence and I talk to them. They listen and respond with their murmurs.

My heart goes out to Heinrich, and I appreciate (just a bit) the difficulty of observing and being with something that is supposed to exist in the wild.  Even our remote presence or insertion of a variable disrupts the process.  At this point, we don’t have wild fledgelings; their behavior may in fact be some weird hybrid of raven, people and chicken.  What ill-equipped monsters are we creating?

This is a terrible thing.

I still can’t help but talk to the ravens though.  They can trust me, I tell them.  They can trust Pearish and Kerry and the others that feed them.  We won’t hurt them.  But they can’t trust anyone else.  They can’t trust the world, I tell them. The world will hurt them.  Most other humans will hurt them.  I feel a sudden sadness in this recognition.  That’s what we are as a species:  the ones that hurt others.  We will eat anything in sight.  We disdain a creature just because it shits in a plot we consider our yard.  We will kill other living things just for the sport of it.  Sometimes we gain pleasure in hurting.  We’re sick.

Emancipation comes in honoring another life over your own.  Curbing your own appetite so that another may live.

I want the ravens to stay with us.  I want them as friends.  But that’s my selfish desire and I can’t impose it on them.  The day may come when I will have scare the bejesus out of them.  They may have to become terrified of us.  Just so that they may live.

© Kerry Hardy


Fault line 2009-10-28: Foot. Snow. Earth.

I ran this morning toward the new fields that Philip has plowed. An inch of snow blanketed the ground. Out by his field area I noticed a cottonwood structure – not quite a ramada – that had been erected at some point. It may have been there for three years or a thousand or since yesterday. I only just noticed it. The dogs and I cut down across the wash, across the snow blanketed runnels along the bench and up to the plowed fields on the other side. The structure had no apparent use. And no apparent past or future. Much like many of the discoveries here, it seems to exist apart from time.

Philip had a good year. The monsoons did not come this summer which pretty much did in most of the farmers. But not Philip. His vast field sported dense head high corn. But here is the secret. He had water. But it did not come this year. The rain actually fell in August, 2008. And it sat on top of the dense clay, creating a swamp of his field. He got nothing that year. And it took three months for the rain to perc into the ground. And then the ground froze. And when it thawed, the dense clay would not give up the moisture. Philip planted late and the corn was slow to start, but when the roots finally hit that year old moisture it took off.

Philip watered his field one year in advance. And now he is plowing and preparing fields further up the wash that may not be planted for another two years. And may not produce for three.

If any foundation or philanthropic people are reading this, take note. Not all environments operate on a 1 year funding cycle. Here a full cycle of rain and drought may take 10 to 30 years. A single planting cycle here may span three to five years. Time slows down. Life proceeds as it should. Not as we want it to. We must learn to let life proceed as it should. Problems arise from forcing it.

We must accommodate ourselves to it. We must slow our pulse.

On my run, I notice footprints in the snow, the print of a human foot, complete with heel and arch and toes. I consider two possibilities. The first: at dawn a person ran before me wearing skins on their feet. The second and even more compelling: A person in fact ran barefoot in the snow.

I ponder and decide to explore the more compelling of the two. I strip off my shoes and socks. I stand on the frozen mud. I set off running barefoot across the whitened desert.

The cold instantly hardens my feet to most sensation. I feel a gentle burning pain overridden by a lightness of step. I run fast. I feel a slight bump on my heel that feels uncomfortable. I stop and find a goat head lodged in my foot up to the hilt. I cannot feel it. I pull it out and continue on for close to half a mile. Not much. Certainly not as much as some. My distant ancestors would most certainly have been ashamed.

But we do what we can. If only to feel the cold.