I’ve been watching him for several years now, tracking his progress, aching for him, rooting for him, afraid to find him missing once and for all. He’s distinguished from all the other crows of my ‘hood by the grotesque growth on his foot. It’s ugly and gray and swollen, and I presumed when I first saw it he was a goner. My neighbors and I contacted crow rescue associations, veterinarians, even the University of California, and they all said that because he could still fly, there’d be no way to get hold of him to see what was wrong.

I realize I have no way of knowing if he’s a Mr. Crow or a Ms., but somehow I’ve always thought of him as male. He’s sturdy-sized and glides through the air with that signature corvid slow-pitched-ball grace. Sometimes I see him hanging out with another crow, sometimes with one of the squirrels that my animal-friendly neighbor Mary Lou feeds by hand. But mostly he likes to perch on one of my neighbor’s rough, unmown lawns as if the prickly grass feels good to his mangled foot, every once in awhile jabbing his sharp beak into the ground to snag a vagrant worm.

I learned months ago not to stop to look at him. He takes off quick as a spring storm, and so he should. A wounded crow has to be tempting prey for the occasional hungry coyote wandering down from the Hollywood hills, where “development” has pretty much wrecked the natural habitat. So I walk by, full of fast purpose, checking him out from the corner of my eye, praying he’s not in pain.

I’ve written about crows before on this blog. Which makes me laugh, since I used to hate them. I hated their raucous cries, their oily black wings, hated watching them take off with rats in their claws, the aggressiveness with which they protect their young. I’ve been dive-bombed by a few on the next block who were convinced I was a fledgling-killer despite my explanations that I had no such intentions.

But the corvids have won me over. They’re reputed to be among the smartest birds in Mama Nature’s aviary, cleverly crafting tools and even demonstrating an ability to count. They win their freedom to soar by first paying their dues in fledgling flightlessness, which brings me to this day, the 4th of July.

For us humans, too, freedom has to be won. But even as a child, the American narrative that we win our freedom by sending our sons off to war never felt quite right to me. I loved the stars in the summer night sky and took screaming delight in the sparklers we waved that mirrored those faraway suns’ intensity. And I couldn’t quite comprehend why the flag-waving of the Fourth was so equated with bursts of gunfire and not with the shared wonder of living under such a stellar canopy, with the sweetness of grownups coming out of their homes to celebrate their children’s capacity for awe and to share the pleasure of neighborliness and community.

I’m not a pacifist. I’m moved to tears by the role my countrymen and women played in the defeat of fascism. We as a people took awful, but necessary action to defeat a demonic attempt to deny our species’ common humanity, and we might someday be called again to fight a just war. Which wouldn’t exactly be how I’d describe the Brave New World of perpetual war we’re currently hijacking our economy and collective honor for. The truth is, America’s much-touted freedom is more typically won on the ground, the very same ground to which my wounded Mr. Crow is frequently relegated, where empathy for a fellow creature brings out Jewish, Muslim, Christian, atheist, Hindu, Buddhist, goddess-worshiping, and head-scratching neighbors to try to figure out how to address a beautiful bird’s predicament.

Dear Mr. Crow, we may never find a way to heal you. But you heal us. Or, truer still, you torment and heal us, reminding us of our longing for freedom from limitation and vulnerability, our impulse to reach out to one another to stave off pain and to share stories, our predilection for passion and fireworks, our need to serve our lifetimes as fledglings before finally lifting off to rejoin the cosmic dust from which we came. Until then, Mr. Crow, we sit with you on the green and scratchy ground of the Mother and bear witness to the tough nut of incarnation, to the beauty and cruelty of life that both frees us and holds us captive.

Happy 4th, Mr. Crow.


  1. Anonymous- July 4, 2012 at 10:37 AM
    • While reading this,piece I thought of Joni Mitchell’s, Black Crow. The writing built powerfully, slowly until the end, like one long firecracker circling the globe and then…going off….!
    • Response from Sharon Heath – November 25, 2012 at 8:59 PM: What a fantastic image! I feel very honored to be compared in any way to Joni Mitchell!