Van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows

February 18, 2013

Do you remember drawing crows as a child?  A sun, clouds – and curved black lines that punctuated the sky, elevating the mind from the ground, flying into the unknown.  They were beautiful and mysterious.  Vincent Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows is an extrapolation and magnification of those childhood drawings; the crows connect a fertile earth with dark heavens, sending us a brooding message that lifts from the canvas into our souls.  There’s something magical about birds; they are, in fact, symbols of the soul.  They do something that we humans can’t – fly.  Only our thoughts can rise above our circumstances.  In our imaginations, we fly.  So birds are like our thoughts and feelings, soaring beyond our bodies.  Sometimes, our moods become crow.  The winter blues are as black as crows.

Crows are dark omens and tricksters.  They are smart animals, with large brains.  John Marzluff, a scientist studying crows, calls them “feathered apes” (in the Nature Documentary, Murder of Crows  They can make tools, have a language of over 250 distinct calls, and nurture their young for years.  And in the winter, their blackness marks them against gray skies and white snow.  They are survivors; who doubts that they could outlast humankind, if humanity doesn’t kill the planet first.  They are survivors of winter, in their black coats, outlasting the abandonments and losses of the season, inhabiting the cold desert of emotional outcasts and recluses.  We would do well to learn from crows.

I recently had the chance to watch again a fantastic documentary, Tokyo Waka, by John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson.  (Tokyo Waka is playing at the San Francisco leg of the International Buddhist Film Festival on March 10th, tickets available here  The pair spent six months in Tokyo, learning her moods and history, and counting crows.  Crows, skyscrapers, city lights and shadows, and masses of people are what one most clearly notices in Tokyo.  The documentary is wonderful and poetic (a waka is a kind of poem using internal repeats), with a poetry of images and scenes as well as a poetry of weaving interviews that illuminate the sensibilities of the city, its people, and Buddhist and Shinto philosophies.   (The film is awaiting distribution on DVD.  If you’re interested, send an email to

Crows are seen building nests from hangars and plucking at garbage bags; humans engage in countermeasures against the crows.  Tokyo has a city department devoted to crow control and capture, and they have reduced the crow population by half.  But a man says “it is quite telling we are unable to completely control crows.”  Nature always has the last word.  A Buddhist monk speaks philosophically of how crows and people send us messages about the nature of life:  evanescent, driven by desire, with a sense of ultimate tragedy or futility.  That last sense seems characteristic of Japanese culture.  The saying “shi ka ta ga nai”, or “it can’t be helped”, is common wisdom.  Perseverance, despite difficult odds and tragedy (the documentary lists the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the Tokyo fire bombings of World War II – both reduced the city to rubble and ashes), is a national trait.  The city rebuilds, slowly, after each tragedy.  Another man in the documentary says that “the Japanese will always remain serious and deep inside.”  That seems very “crow” to me.  Indeed, the emblem of the Japanese National Soccer team is the Yatagarasu, a three-legged crow and messenger of the god Kumano.  The legs stand for Heaven, Earth, and Man.  Crow stands on all three.

A Shinto priest describes the profound humility and respect felt by humans when facing nature:  the awesomeness of a tree or boulder.  “This is where Shinto came from,” he says.  I feel awe and respect when I see crows, here in San Francisco.  Birds are the most obvious fellow inhabitants of the city.  Crows seem so independent of us, even as they often live off our refuse.  Crows are watching us, cackling their observations, shaking their heads.  Depression can seem like an unnested crow:  bitter and dark, certain of the wrongheadedness of the ways of men.

From Masahisa Fukase, Karasu

Masahisa Fukase took to taking pictures of crows (left) after his wife Yoko divorced him.  His photographs are described in the documentary as “reflecting the inner landscape of his heart; about the pain inside.”

But crows –survivors – do not, I think, in the end symbolize futility.  They are, after all, birds, capable of heavenly flight, perhaps closer to God than we are.

Misako Ichimura, a homeless Tokyo resident, has the last word.  She sings the “evening matins” – a song played in Tokyo at the close of the day:

It is getting dark

The bell from the temple on the mountain echoes.

Let’s hold hands and go home together.

Let’s go home with the crows.

A bird that symbolized the heart after divorce – can also symbolize coming home and togetherness.

I hope your winter blues are lifting.

© 2013 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.  

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