A murder in their backyard in Oakland, California changed the lives of Adam and Dani.
Lauren Markham wrote about the incident in Harper’s magazine.
One day Dani saw a flock of crows descending on the back yard. Flocks of crows are known as ‘murders.’ It looked as if the crows were attacking Mona, their dog. Dani rushed out, shooed the crows and brought Mona indoors. Soon they found they could not be outside. When the couple went out to the porch, the murder menaced them. They feared for their safety. How did they get on the crows’ hit list? Desperate, they consulted a local and trusted ‘crow whisperer,’ Yvette Buigues.
Yvette is a character, described as a “rowdy, 40-something raconteur with a gravelly voice who likes to cuss.” She’s also a pet trainer, painter and craniosacral therapist working with animals. She definitely has a gift.
When Yvette arrived, she spoke wordlessly to the murder. The crows backed off cautiously while she explored the backyard. She found a wounded fledging in the bushes. It was mauled, bleeding and with a wing hanging. Yvette wordlessly talked the wounded bird into her hand and arranged to place it in a box with food and water. Yvette was not sure the bird would live. The crows watched but did not menace her. In a day, the bird was gone and the crows, too.
It seemed that the dog may have injured the bird and the crows were out for revenge.
Ethologists (students of animal behavior) and whisperers like Yvette agree that communicating with animals requires deep, sustained attention.
Markham titles her essay “The Crow Whisperer: What happens when we talk to animals?” As I read the piece, I sensed that the burden of the trans-species communication had less to do with what the whisperer might say –– Yvette didn’t seem to verbalize her thoughts ––but relied instead on something in the way she listened.
Inter-species communication is fascinating. However, an immediate task is addressing the quality of the communication we regularly have with each other. Nobody needs to be told that it’ snot good, nor has it been for several years. Many years ago, Ernest Hemingway observed, “Most people never listen.”
Several pieces addressing the importance of how we’re listening to each other in our culture appeared recently in op-ed columns in the New York Times and Washington Post. I think they were written in response to the tense climate of the last four years and how we are struggling to cope with the anxiety and uncertainty the pandemic has generated.
There was a prevailing theme in the newspaper pieces, namely that listeners’ are emotionally attuned to what some speaker may be saying only about 5% of the time. In conversations, we’re typically somewhere else.
In family life and particularly in marriages, the experience of not feeling heard is a common complaint. Kimberly Probolus, quipped once how, “as far back as ancient Greece –– when Cassandra warned the Trojans about the wooden horse, women have been speaking loudly and clearly. The problem is that men are not listening.”
I must confess I was guilty of that kind of behavior in the early days of my marriage. You’d suppose as a clergyman and trained psychotherapist I would be a natural at deep listening but alas, there were times when I left it all at the office. My wife would periodically call me on my over talking or trying to “fix” the problem she was describing rather than just listening and trying to understand her. Generally, it’s better for a man to leave his work at the office, but I might have done better by her if I’d brought some of it home with me, at least a few of the tools of my trade.
To feel someone has listened and understood us is a profoundly moving experience. It cuts through a kind of primal loneliness that’s woven into our humanity. Learning how to discipline our inner emotions in order to be available to others to listen to them attentively sounds simple enough but it’s not easy to do. It’s an intentional act and it’s all about focusing attention.
Let’s say you are my friend.
You want to tell me something that’s on your mind, or some pain weighing on your heart.
As you tell me, I will have an instinctive emotional counter-reaction within myself. It’s natural, when in the presence of someone else’s painful revelation to feel an inner discomfort of my own. Can I sit still with my own discomfort? Or will I have to get rid of it nervously by issuing lame reassurances, saying something like, ‘Oh you’ll get over this,’ or ‘You must not worry so much.’ Reactions like that on my part would serve to relieve some of my discomfort, but would communicate to my friend that I am not feeling easy at all with what she is telling me. Such comments are like saying ‘I’ve heard enough.’ Rather than feeling understood, my friend will feel even more alone in her troubles because she’ll sense that they have been a burden to me. This will make her more uncomfortable and isolate her still further.
What about interspecies communication? Being able to listen to and hear the voice of the natural world is more than just a diversion or curiosity. We are paying a terrible price for our failure to understand and respond to the voices of the land, the water, the birds, the animals the plants and the trees.
With documented global warming and escalating species extinction, the natural world is screaming bloody murder for our attention. The planet yearns to be heard. Few of us are listening.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.