I know from the past that this expression, “As the crow flies” describes how far away something is from one point to the other. However, have you ever watched a crow or a raven fly? Rarely do I ever see them fly straight from “point A to point B.” Now you can challenge me on this if you want to, but I would wager that if you have ever spent any time outside watching crows, you would become as fascinated as I did. Crows are known to be quite smart creatures. They watch all sorts of things from their vantage points, and when they think that no one is watching they will swoop down and carry off something that they coveted, after waiting ever so patiently for the right time to snatch it.
I heard a story about a crow when I was quite little about my Grandmother’s Aunt, a Victorian woman, Julia Weber, who possessed many talents in her own right. She became quite perturbed about a little crow that would outwit her time and time again. Now Aunt Julia just wasn’t a woman who would rely on others to do anything for her, if she wanted to accomplish something, she would do it on her own volition. After all, Aunt Julia, was the daughter of two pioneers who traveled across the territories in separate wagon parties, her father arriving in California in 1841, and her mother arriving in 1844. Perhaps she also gained her know-how spirit from the early settlers of California, having at her fingertips the reins of two Mexican Land Grants acquired by her father, Captain Weber.
So to continue my story, how did they ever get the idea that crows fly from one point to another in a straight line… is beyond me. Crows, actually, at times fly together in lazy loops while they whoop and cackle across the sky, over huge, vast fields, back and forth, up and around, and down to the earth perhaps in search of water, small bugs or just to land. Crows tend to gather together on fences, trees, telephone poles and wires, and even now it seems that they perch on the huge turbines that dot the coastal mountains on the way to the Delta. They are not always solitary creatures, they do like to be in groups, and it does seem as though they are very sociable.
In Aunt Julia’s time, on Weber’s Point, (Stockton) her days were filled with keeping the work-hands fed, six loaves in the oven at a time, keeping the old adobe clean as best as possible with the dust that blew in from across the Delta from Mount Diablo, the gardens always needed tending, and seeds for the gardens were on order from all over the world. She kept the books for the crops, ordering the grain, tracking the harvest on the ranches, keeping track of the cattle, sheep, chickens, horses, and at times she watched the packet ships travel up the river, delivering passengers, mail and bulk shipments. Last, but not least, the extraordinary hand-stitchery and crafts, always a never-ending task and, now these treasures continue to grace our family’s homes. There were public events to attend, because her father, Captain Weber, the Founder of Stockton whose businesses were many as he outfitted the miners. The settlement of Stockton occurred as people poured into the San Joaquin Valley in search of a better way of life. Many miners went to the gold fields, but returned to Stockton broke and empty-handed. Some wandered by the Weber home and found work there, and then they too proceeded to settle in Stockton.
As I listened to this story from my Grandmother, I heard that this particular crow was quite mischievous on many occasions. There were some events when the family had put out fresh linens and decked the table with certain seasonal table dressings, décor, silver ware, goblets, and special little place cards… Things would disappear off that table, but it was selective and unexplainable, and even Julia’s brothers, Charles and Tom were blamed at times for these occurrences. At other times, while getting dressed upstairs in the old adobe, Captain Weber complained that his favorite cuff links and even a watch fob disappeared, much to the family’s dismay.
Anyway, Aunt Julia, understandably was quite upset, but she didn’t pay too much attention because there was always so much work to do, depending on the harvest time, putting up jar fruits, jams, jellies, and vegetables, salting the meat, keeping the potatoes in the root-cellar, tending the fire pit while smoking the pigs and fish from the river… daily tasks were organized by what was imminently most important, and the rest occurred as frequently as needed. Sometimes Aunt Julia was able to sneak away to draw or paint river scenes or whatever struck her fancy.
One day, after returning from one of her walks, always accompanied by either her cats who pranced along side of her and her favorite dogs, Aunt Julia noticed this little crow hopping up and down on an oak branch, and it seemed to her that he was laughing at her. She watched him and then pretended not to watch this little bird, as she sketched him. He then flew into the upstairs window of the old adobe. Now the adobe had a porch that surrounded it, on two levels, one by the ground the other surrounded the upstairs. At evening and dusk I heard that Captain Weber stood up there and admired the view of the river and Mount Diablo in the distance. The windows of the adobe were deep set and so she couldn’t tell exactly where it went, but Aunt Julia knew it flew in the direction of her father’s dressing room. She kept one eye on that window but perched herself on a stump next to her dog, who obediently waited for her. The crow flew out of that window like a bird on a mission, wings batting the air, not with any kind of grace, mind you, he was sputtering and fluttering straight up into the oak tree, and as he turned to land, a glint of light caught her eye, she thought, “oh, there is something shiny in his beak!” He disappeared into a knothole for some time. Then he came out and spied Aunt Julia below and cackled and danced on his tree limb.
Well Aunt Julia thought this was the limit! She went to shed a ways off from the house, and proceeded to carry a huge wooden fruit-tree ladder over to the oak tree. Mind you, Aunt Julia was wearing a full-length dress, complete with embroidered sleeves, with a beige duster over it, and a huge sun hat with a wide brim on it. After balancing the ladder next to the tree, between the tree roots that had grown out of the soil, she proceeded to climb up the ladder into the tree. That crow suddenly got a bit nervous. It screeched at her and pecked the tree limb furiously the closer she got to that knothole. Upon grasping both sides of the tree she balanced herself on a limb and then climbed a bit higher up, and, now don’t forget she had on laced-up ladies boots and, of course all of tailings of the aforementioned Victorian dress, and petticoats peeking out of the undergarments from below. It must have been a very funny sight. She did managed to see the crow’s treasure, which I was told by my Grandmother, that it had consisted of possibly years of collecting family rings, things, shiny objects that were coveted, not just one silver spoon but several silver spoons, a small child’s toy, a gold chain, the missing watch fob with a silver horse pendant and some nuts. She was so elated to find her family belongings much to the crow’s consternation, whose facial features she described to my Grandmother as having crooked its neck sideways, eyes flashing and his shiny feathers rippled like black taffeta in the sunlight as his screaming became non-stop when she took her family possessions out of his hiding place, and deposited them into her dress pocket.
I guess that I have to concede that when crows are on a mission that old saying must really mean that “the straightest line from point A to point B is as the crow flies.” I think that one should never underestimate the willingness, cunningness and curiosity of a crow!
Copyright Helen Holden-Gladsky 2010