An Animist’s Bookshelf – Jim Crumley on Eagles, Swans, and Bears.

the company of swans021

Jim Crumley has long been one of my favourite nature writers.  When I read his books I often find myself muttering “yes”, particularly when he’s describing encounters with birds.  As far as I’m aware, he doesn’t use the term animist, but most contemporary Western animists would immediately recognise him as a conspecific.  He’s profoundly respectful of the autonomy, the personhood, of birds, and other animals, and has been a powerful advocate for rewilding in his native Scotland.  His writing is informed by dreams, folklore, poetry and visual art, by indigenous people’s perspectives on relations between humans and other large predators, and, of course, by decades of careful fieldwork.

In Brother Nature he describes how he ‘grew up nurtured by many animal dreams not to be afraid’, and how one of those dreams foreshadowed his enounters with bears when visiting the late Scott Shelton, and grizzly bears, in Alaska.  Shelton had, in turn, been shown how to relate to the bears by his native american neighbours.  For Jim Crumley, Alaska was what Scotland would have been like a thousand years ago, when the Romans were busy capturing hundreds of Caledonian brown bears and shipping them from Berwick, apparently named from this gruesome trade, for use in the Coloseum.

Jim Crumley describes himself as an unscientist -‘every bit as unscientist as the raven’- and argues that ‘the nature writers cause is better served by adhering to a kind of wild improvisation than to the principles and routines of science’.  He’s there to be poetic, to feel, to ‘look into nature’s eyes’, to engage in dialogue, to show that his species is still capapble of intimacy with non-human others.  Too much information can blind you to nature’s mystery.  Yes, yes, and yes.  Yes too, when he voices concern about the use of large plastic wing tags on every red kite at a re-introduction programme.  The kites will only have been successfully been re-introduced once they have eluded their reintroducers.

He opens The Company of Swans, a beautiful little book enlivened by Harry Brockway’s engravings, with a short poem, presumably his own, lamenting the fact that ‘a small mound of white feathers … is all the monument there will ever be to the life of a swan’.  He had, however, already provided a fine monument in the form of Waters of the Wild Swan.  Both books are inspired by ‘a profound love and respect for the wildness of swan and landscape’, and by outrage that whilst ‘we smother chocolate boxes and shortbread tins and matchboxes and theatres and pubs and toilet rolls and much else besides with the imagery of swans’, celebrate them in art, declare them ‘royal’, and embrace them in our folklore, ‘we also ridicule them, poison them, choke them, shoot them, beat them up, strangle them, electrify them, even crucify them’.  Yes!

Crumley writes movingly about his long relationship with swans and describes some wonderful close encounters, but is careful not to make casual claims about his ability to communicate with them.  Unlike many of his peers he’s also open about a premonitory sixth sense that sometimes comes into play, about his ‘almost ceremonial practice of greeting the returning whooper swans’, and about entering ‘the realms of silent worship’.  In the 1992 book he tells us about an inner dialogue in which he eventually resists a conditioned inner voice  urging him to ignore all that “Guardians of the Soul Crap”.  He says he feels less alone because, for twenty thousand years, humans have revered swans, but -typically- then asks “who cares for the soul of a swan?”.

Golden Eagle, Aquila chrysaetos.  Photo Richard Bartz, Munich, Creative Commons.

Golden Eagle, Aquila chrysaetos. Photo: Richard Bartz, Creative Commons.

So I was very pleased when I stumbled upon a new Jim Crumley book in a local bookshop recently. The Eagle’s Way  is about his other long term avian love affair, with Scotland’s eagles.  This is mainly a book about field work, and a work of advocacy for golden eagles and the reintroduced sea eagles.  So, for instance, when describing two occasions when an eagle and a wren became juxtaposed in his life, he doesn’t digress into the folklore that links these smallest and largest of birds.  What he does do, however, is look into the wren’s tiny and ‘inscrutible’ black eye for a ‘trance like moment’ … ‘perhaps a minute’, and ask “what message do you have for me”.

The book opens in Orkney, in the company, as it were, of Jim Crumley’s late friend George Carson, and his friend, the celebrated poet George Mackay Brown.  Crumley follows George Carson’s footsteps to the Tomb of the Eagles, at Isbister, on South Ronaldsay, where he was given four  -four to five thousand year old- sea eagle talons to hold, and had a life changing epiphany about his place in the millennia long relationship between humans and eagles.  The Tomb of the Eagles is well known as a neolithic chambered cairn that was found to contain 641 sea eagle bones -the remains of at least eight birds- alongside the remains of 85 humans.

I have a small bone to pick with Jim at this point, insofar as his condensed account of the tomb omits recent findings that complicate the archaeological story, notably that the eagle bones were deposited up to a thousand years later than the human ones.  Because those human bones were deposited communally, after removal of the flesh, sea eagles may indeed have been involved in excarnation or ‘sky-burial’, and may have been been revered as a ‘totem’ animal and/or guardian of the dead at the time of the cairn’s construction, as his telling assumes.  We can’t be sure. They were certainly revered later.  More importantly a brief reference to recent evidence suggesting that neolithic farmers were much less peaceable than formerly thought, would have helped dispel the impression of a remote arcadian past in which our distant ancestors lived in easy harmony with the rest of nature.  Although perhaps beyond the remit of a book like this, there’s also ongoing debate about the ethics of opening up long sealed ancestral human graves, and no doubt, about cleaning them up and converting them into  ‘must-see’ tourist attractions.

Jim Crumley, who says he normally goes out of his way to avoid dark enclosed spaces, was ‘astounded into something like a state of trance’ in the cairn, suddenly felt overwhelmed, and sped out into the sunlight on the small trolley that conveys visitors into the structure.  As ever, the immediacy of his account transports the reader.  Standing about a dozen yards from the seaward facing entrace of the tomb, he notices a skylark rise from its curved roof.  ‘Skylarks are my good omen birds.  Where there are skylarks, there is hope.  As long as there are skylarks I can cope with anything’.  Yes, yes, yes!

The Eagle’s Way ponders the relationship between the golden eagle, a bird thirled to high and lonely places, and the sea eagle, who ‘has no hang-up about perching on your roof’, and was only re-introduced -to Mull- in 1975.  The re-introduced birds had no parental training in the nuances of the new landscape they found themselves in, and have been subjected to some lurid press coverage.  Against this, he quotes a friend, Ann Lolley, describing a very close encounter with a sea-eagle on a beach in North Fife: “The size and perfection of the bird and its one clear eye which held contact with mine seemed to mesmerise me and hold me in a state of wonder.  Somehow I understood deep within myself that there must be a reason for our meeting.  This was an offering’ […] ‘Perhaps such species have the role of reaching out and mesmerising us enough to make us change all of our destructive habits that impact on the earth’.  Jim Crumley hopes that ‘the folk mind is quietly coming to terms with them’.  On Mull, eco-tourism has won the argument for nature.  Yes.

Brian Taylor 24/7/14.


Some of Jim Crumley’s Books.

Brother Nature, Whittles Publishing, 2007.

Waters of the Wild Swan, Jonathan Cape, 1992.

The Company of Swans, The Harvill Press, 1997.

The Eagle’s Way, Saraband, 2014.

Jim Crumley, Radio Talk: A New Dance with Wolves.

Orkney Jar: Tomb of the Eagles Remains Paints a Darker Picture of Neolithic Life.

and The Isbister Cairn, the Significance of the Eagles.


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