I was making a sandwich when I heard all the commotion. My kitchen overlooks the backyard, so I looked out the window to see what was the matter. The sound was pervasive, a thick layer of shouts and squawks, but outside I only saw the tall silver maple I call “Friend Tree,” and beyond that, the shrine to Óðinn I built last summer. I did not see anything moving in the yard, though the branches and leaves of Friend Tree shook in a way that seemed like more than the wind.
The din had been loud inside the house, but outside, I felt like I was being buffeted by it, surrounded on all sides by argument. I felt a guilty weight in the pit of my stomach. I knew what the sound was now. I looked up and without any joy found what I expected to find.
There were exactly two black crows sitting in the branches of my tree, facing my house, yelling at me.
“What do you want?” I sighed. But I knew.
I looked down the length of the yard toward the shrine. Over the winter, I had been fairly diligent about my weekly offerings, where on Wednesday nights I would bake a loaf of cider bread and leave it out for Óðinn and the landvættir, but I had not managed to do that in some weeks now. The altar-table of the shrine was crusted with dirt and mulberry stains, and a thunderstorm had cracked a branch from a tree next to it, which needed to be pulled down and cut up.
The crows kept yelling at me.
“We just had a baby!” I yelled back at them. “I think that’s a pretty good excuse!”
The crows did not agree with this line of argument.
Exasperated, I turned to bargaining. “Fine,” I said. “I promise, I’ll give you something within the next week. I can’t promise anything regular until the baby comes home from the hospital, but I can give you that.”
The crows went silent. A feral cat jumped out of the crook of Friend Tree and clambered over the fence into the yard beyond, but the crows did not chase after it. They looked – at me, it seemed – and after a moment one took off, and then the other, flying up to the branches of a tree further back in the yard, and then off into the world.
I scattered some nuts on the altar as a promissory note and went back inside for my sandwich.
I realize that this sounds crazy.
Look, a cat and a couple of crows spotted each other in my yard and their instinctive distrust of one another led to a shouting match. The caws of a crow are louder than the hisses of a cat, which is why I noticed one but not the other until the cat ran away. The crows do not know that I built a shrine to Óðinn in the backyard; crows do not operate on the level of symbolic logic that humans do. They did not arrive to shame me for a lack of religious observances. They are not divine messengers. They are birds. (And anyway, Huginn and Muninn are ravens.)
The same could be said of participation in any kind of ritual life: the moon waxes and wanes whether or not we hold an esbat, and the seasons change regardless of whether we mark it in a circle according to the Wheel of the Year. There is buried somewhere within me a grumbling atheist who feels the need to point these things out – and worse, I must admit that on the balance, the grumbling atheist is right, or at least “right” in the sense of describing objective reality.
All this is true, but sometimes I get into arguments with crows anyway, and occasionally they even listen.
I was still thinking about this conundrum when I found myself driving to the garden shop later in the week. I brought with me a list of plants taken from the Old English “Nine Herbs Charm”: mugcwyrt and wegbrade and lombes cyrse, all names taken from one of the few sources that link a form of the one-eyed god with plants suitable for gardening. (I showed the list to one of the salesmen and he grimaced. “You wouldn’t happen to have the scientific names, would you?”) After some careful checking through his stocks, I walked out with six of the nine – enough to start with, anyway.
This had been my plan since I built the altar table, that my shrine would be a living place, that every year I’d find something to add to it. It started with an altar and an arbor, but from the start, I knew I would want to hang plants sacred to Óðinn from the trellis, and have creeping vines climb over it, and more statues, and more wood carvings, and more – more material manifestations of the bond I share with Óðinn, who is, for better or worse, the god I have hewn closest to over the course of my life.
I had forgotten about the plants, as I had forgotten to make the bread and to pour the mead, the way I had meant to do. I certainly had my excuse; every new parent I know finds much of their intentions slipping away in the wake of a new child. But my life is poorer without these rituals; it is fuller when I remember to water the plants in my hanging garden. And so I am grateful to the crows for yelling at me until I remembered.
Ask me and I will cheerfully admit that I cannot confidently say that Óðinn is anything other than a voice in my head, someone that I built out of myths and histories and comic books. I will tell you that crows are crows, and they are wonderful and fascinating creatures even if they are not mythopoetic emissaries from physically present gods. Paganism is (probably) just a game I play with the rest of creation.
But it’s a good game, and I am glad I play. It would be so easy to forget the wonder of living in this green world if I did not have the crows there to remind me.