What The Raven Said

©1996, Jim Nollman

From the Interspecies Newsletter

A raven glides in low off the Arctic plain, lands ten feet in front,

then walks right up to me. I am lying on my side, using a backpack for a pillow, reading a book. Now I sit up tall and stare. The bird responds by pulling its head back although it moves not an inch. I decide for no good reason, that it's a male. He's not large by raven standards, about the size of a football. The raven is standing so close I could reach out and touch him, although I decide against it. His long scimitar beak could render real damage to my hand if he found offense. He cocks his long beaked face this way and that as if trying to

figure out the best way for a bird whose eyes are arranged on each side of his head mightstare directly into the eyes of a human being whose eyes are set on a flat plane. I wonder if the bird may actually solve what is to my mind an insoluble problem of eye contact, because it soon starts croaking and squawking and cooing in a whispery, soothing tone meant only for my ears.

He searches my eyes. I get an idea, rush to my tent, search a pocket of the backpack to find a small bamboo Jew’s harp carved by an Ainu craftsman in Northern Japan. I rejoin the raven, hold the instrument against my lips and start plucking it back and forth with the thumb of my left hand. "Boing, bo...boing, boing, boing, boing, boing" goes the harp in syncopated four-four time. The raven moves a step closer. He stares at the instrument as if a careful examination might help him pick up a new riff or two to add to his own wide repertoire of sounds. He starts croaking, a sound generated deep inside his gullet. It reminds me of a housecat from a parallel universe who purrs his contentment two octaves below and at half the speed of a normal housecat. Twenty minutes pass, a veritable eternity in the annals of interspecies communication. We’re still at it. The blend of baritone purring and boing-boings has evolved to sound like a didgeridoo accompanying an overtone singer from Tuva. Our bond is sealed.

I’m played out. Need a break. Stand to take a long walk out on the vast uninhabited plain of the MacKenzie River Delta in northern Canada. The raven follows twenty feet behind and ten feet above me. Our recent music-making has made me acutely aware of every sound emanating from the flat, scrubby plain. The beat of the bird’s wings adds a catchy counterpoint to the pad of my sneakers pressing earth. It flies ahead and lands, apparently trying to serve as my guide. When I arrive at the spot, it takes to air again and lands another few hundred yards in front. I follow it for about a mile, quite willing to surrender whatever subliminal itinerary I might have to the birds own. To what treasure will he lead me? A thousand-year old cache of walrus ivory incised with spirals, swans, and stick figures beating on flat skin drums? Or perhaps to a raven’s treasure: the rotting corpse of a lemming.

When I suddenly head off on my own, mostly to test the winds of my own contrariness, I justify the new course in my mind as "an experiment in interspecies communication." The bird makes not a sound, but takes to the air to trace my tracks. Within fifteen minutes, without knowing precisely when or how it happened, I notice that the bird is leading again.

When I return to camp several hours later the raven stands on the peat, never more than a yard’s length away as I cozy up to a smoldering campfire and stick my cheek against the ashes to breathe the coals to life. I am surprized he’s not afraid of fire, or at least this particular fire. I heat water, make hot chocolate. Drink it down. Then enter my tent to sleep. I awake, pop my head outside the tent. The new declination of the sun informs me I’ve been out at least three hours. The raven is standing right beside the door. I feel flattered by his companionship, although I am not yet vain enough to disallow the fact that the camp food is kept in several white buckets stored by the side of my own tent.

The bird does something curious. It flies off the bluff and hides in a willow thicket beside the shore when one of my traveling companions, Jonathan Churcher, strides into the makeshift kitchen to fix a sandwich and brew a cup of coffee. I say nothing about the raven. He rejoins me within a minute of Jonathan’s departure.


Whispery supplications

Immanuel Kant wrote that the human hand is the most visible aspect of the human sensibility. We are creatures of hands and fingers that long to touch and feel and caress our environment. Unfortunately, the fulfillment of this longing has developed into one of humanity’s most detrimental traits. That which we touch we too often alter for our own utility. To the many species of animals that need unadulterated ecosystems to prosper, the human alteration of habitat must be viewed–in the gut if not always in the mind–as an augury of their destruction. Most animals seem to know this fact about human hands, although most humans do not seem to know it at all. Ravens apparently know it exceedingly well because my own wandering hands soon cause a major rift in the fragile relationship that is developing between the two of us.

I’m munching my way through a stack of Ak-Mak crackers. The raven coos and clicks as his way of asking for a handout. I oblige. He takes one square at a time from right out of my palm. When the bird directs its full attention to gobbling down a square, my hand abruptly darts across the unstated boundary line between our two personal spaces to affectionately stroke its hard black bumpy back. The raven lets loose with a piercing squawk. I yank my hand out of reach of its intimidating beak and then quickly pull myself two feet backwards. The raven stays where he is although clearly in turmoil. He chitters and chatters, jerks his head to and fro, right and left, moving forward and back. Despite the agitation, he displays no intention to stab at me.

I speak to him in a tone of whispery supplication, much the way the little Bushman pleaded with the monkey who stole the sinister coke bottle in the film, The Gods Must be Crazy. "I’m sorry, I’m truly sorry, please believe me. I won’t touch you again." He does not respond, but continues to jerk his head back and forth, finally regains his composure, looks me over sideways as if he was sadly mistaken to make eye contact with such a rude person who either never learned the rules of raven protocol or, far worse, refuses to honor them. He flies off, squawking ‘nevermore’ in the strongest raven language possible. I am devastated. How could I be so disrespectful? I’m hardly unaware that human touch is taboo, the kiss of death, among wild animals. I’m sorry. Please. Give me one more chance. The bird settles on the river bank a hundred feet away.

It takes three hours of apparent nonchalance and unspoken conciliation between the two of us before the bird decides to venture close. But he relents, flies to my side, where he makes that strangest of all raven calls that sounds like a drummer banging on woodblock. Once, twice, three times. I feel blessed by his proximity: a raven’s way of communicating that my indecent affront is forgiven.

I am no stranger to ravens. Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, ravens are one of the most common birds although my own local ravens are at least a third again larger than this underfed Arctic bird. They also produce a more varied repertoire of calls. To hear an unidentifiable animal calling in the woods near my home–even to hear what to most people’s ears sounds like a rooster escaped from the coop–is to assume that it’s a raven experimenting with a new call. Where I live I have never heard of a raven openly mingling with a human being, which seems unaccountable considering the number of local Indian myths that focus on human interactions with the species. Raven was traditionally considered a trickster, the Northern cousin of the Southwest’s Coyote, protagonist of hundreds of folk tales among indigenous people from Washington State to Siberia to Greenland who portrayed the bird as both a comedian and a malefactor who often became the butt of his own jokes. Raven possessed genius, the first shaman, a true prodigy among animals. He put the sun in the sky, regulated the tides, created humanity from out of a clamshell, then sealed the bargain by bringing us culture as well. The sheer number of these myths about the human/raven bond suggests that as late as fifty years ago human beings and ravens probably enjoyed some measure of a ritualized dialogue, perhaps folded into the layers of an arcane native ceremony revitalized each year through a secret mix of initiation and psychotropic prodding.

Nevermore. To the local ravens, I am no more an individual than they are individuals to me. Call me generic man, the meanest-spirited and certainly the most unpredictably dangerous species in all of creation. The result of this generic reputation is clear. The local ravens treat me as the personification of evil. I occasionally try to emulate the local ravens vocalizing among their kind. The response is immediate. They stop calling altogether and beat a hasty retreat. It’s to be expected. In the past year alone, two raven nests in my neighborhood have been felled by neighbors for what are labeled utilitarian reasons. In both case, the presence of raven nests was not considered any good reason to keep the trees standing. Generic man did it. It’s him who uses the birds for target practice. Despite the fact that this generic man views his raven vocalizations as a gesture of admiration and friendship, the act gets interpreted in the context of centuries of disintegrating protocol between our species. I remain an optimist, and so, for other generic men and women who love the raven I offer this advice. Keep squawking, rasping, hissing, knocking on wood. Something’s got to give. Maybe not today. Maybe somebody’s great grandchildren will notice a difference in a hundred years.

Gift Giving

I have not seen my two campmates all day. Daniel is searching for a beluga whale skull in the midden of an abandoned Inuit hunting camp. Jonathan has paddled off in the other direction, following a moose’s splayed footprints in the hope of landing a photograph of North America’s tallest animal. The land basks golden-orange in the eerie light of midnight. The wind is stronger than last night. I feel tired, retire to take a nap. The sides of my tent roar and snap like a whip as I unzip it and climb inside. Yesterday, Daniel strung up a whole beluga whale skeleton on an old Inuit drying rack a hundred yards from my campsite. As the wind accelerates, the bones start clicking and clacking against one another. I ordinarily keep the tent tightly sealed to keep out the mosquitoes. Tonight the wind keeps them grounded better than anything I might accomplish with zippers so I open the tent a crack at the bottom in an attempt to equalize the air pressure inside and out. I lie down, must fall into a dream because I am soon awakened by a gentle jab to the shoulder. I pop open an eye and notice my friend the raven. He is glaring down at me from a perch on the metal frame of my pack. That scimitar beak, three inches long and black as coal is just above my face. I instinctively place my hand in front of my eyes, pull my face back.

He touched me? Is that what he did? Touched me? "So, you’ve decided to up the ante," I remark loudly to be heard over the noise of the fierce wind buffeting the walls of the tent accompanied by the rattling of the whale bones. He is cooing while poking his beak at the pack. "A few crackers will do it, please." Is that what he wants? Is he asking me to open the top zipper to liberate the Ak-Mak crisps that we both know lie inside? I nod my head in affirmation, reach up, unzip the pack without moving it, find the cracker box with my fingers, extricate it, zip up the pack, open the lid of the box, unfold the plastic inner wrapper and grab a handful of brown corrugated crackers. The bird reaches daintily from his perch on the frame. Selects a cracker. I feel blissful that a wild animal would honor me with such a close encounter.

At the moment of our mutual communication triumph, a substantial glob of white goo squirts from the ravens hindquarters onto the zipper of my pack. Now it’s my turn to react without premeditation. I let loose with a scream so shrill that, truthfully, it would only be justified if the pack cloth were sizzling into a smoky slag from contact with the odious juices emitted by such a vile scavenger. I feel enraged, but also a bit frightened, point lividly at the mess, then at the bird who suddenly seems to have quadrupled in size. He flaps his wings. They have grown to fifty feet wide. "Get out of here! Get out! RIGHT NOW!!!" I scream, raising a hand to throw the first projectile I can grab which, in this case, is a handful of crackers. They spin across the length of the tent like a drizzle of frisbies, and thud against the screen. The bird appears mostly unfazed by my outburst. But something is communicated. He jumps lightly off his perch, waddles across my sleeping bag-covered legs, picks up a cracker, delicately lifts the tent screen with his beak, and ducks through the hole.

I break off a piece of toilet paper, clean up the sticky mess, and then toss the soiled paper out the hole. An hour passes in the golden Arctic night. I regret my response and wonder if, indeed, there might have been any special significance to the fact that the raven defecated precisely on the zipper pull? Who’s to say he doesn’t interpret the sudden appearance of so many crackers as a just trade for his own murky deposit. What do I know? Defecation could be a raven’s most deferential response to an offer of food, the analog to a human curtsy, a bow and a thank you very much. What if he was simply trying to tell me in his most erudite manner that, "Ah yes, my dear fellow two-legged. Allow me, your most grateful raven, to poop most fulsome on your zipper as a gesture of my humble esteem?"

Deena Metzger has written that animals are different intelligences, each species holding and expressing a body of knowledge in its own manner, each species different in its knowing and responding to the world. Yet in so many ways the raven and I are alike. Subtle gestures enacted to display respect and friendship and ultimately meant to elevate our relationship to a new level are not understood at all by the other. Other gestures of no consequence whatsoever get interpreted by the other party as uncouth impudence. We two are bumblers, an interspecies odd couple, inadvertant perpetrators and, consequently, overreacting victims of our own species-specific behavior patterns. Yet we long to connect, both of us striving to cultivate the novel camaraderie that binds us to a middle ground of our own invention.

Apparently, both of us also know how to forgive.


Rudiments of language

When I open my eyes again, there are mosquitos on my cheeks. The wind has stopped. I dab the bugs to oblivion, zip up the bottom flap of the tent then fall asleep again, dream, waken a bit, write, nibble, read, sleep again. The raven’s black silhouette remains stooped in a submissive pose just beyond the closed-up tent screen. He sways and coos, trying to win me over with whispery supplications, seduce me to open the zipper. "Please, my good friend," I hear him cooing, "Tell me what I have done to deserve this snub. You must know I meant nothing by it. Let bygones be bygones. And why not? Let me inside again. Perhaps share another cracker, have a good talk about the meaning of life."

I wonder why I haven’t seen another raven since this one arrived on the scene yesterday. Is it coincidence? Or do I belong to him. His conquest. His possession. His pet. Poe felt far more vindictive about his own raven whom he depicted as a symbol of Death, a metaphor that harkens back to the middle ages when ravens were considered the companions of witches, like the bird who counsels the evil queen in Snow White. The Catholic Church, in particular, saddled the species with so much diabolical baggage because this raucus, midnight-black scavenger that picks over the bones of the dead clearly has a keen intellect. Ornithologists tell us that ravens possess as great a variety of calls as parrots, mynahs and mockingbirds. Their calls correlate so closely with social behavior that it suggests the rudiments of language.

Ravens are also notoriously mechanical, the engineers and physicists of the avian world. They have been observed pouring water from a pool onto dry objects to plump them up before eating them. In captivity they have been observed placing solid objects in a cup of water to raise the level to where they can get a drink. Then there is my own raven. More than once over the past day, I have been forced to stop dead in my tracks, stare at this Other. He seems a patient friend, occasionally a teacher, trying his best to get me to understand his drift. He has continually raised the stakes of our mutual reverie.

Morning arrives. The sun sits high in the southeast quadrant. I lay in my tent fully awake, lying on my back examining the effects of bright sunlight filtered through the green ripstop nylon. Thousands of mosquito bodies bump up against the fabric. With my eyes closed it sounds like rain. I hear the sound of a food bucket being pried open, the rhythmical priming of the camp stove. Is it possible? The raven has learned how to use the stove? I rush outside to encounter Jonathan sitting on the ground staring placidly at a bowl of granola he holds like a robins egg in the nest of his gargantuan hands. I walk around the tent. Scan the plain. The raven is gone. When I ask Jonathan if he turned into a raven last night, he peers at me quizzically, then grins broadly, "Oh yah, sure, that was me all right." I sit down on the ground to tell him of my experience.

He nods, downs a few spoonfuls of granola, then stops long enough to uncork a story he heard last winter from a local trapper from Tuyktoyuktuk named Thomasie Cowcharlie. "Thomasie was out in the bush about two hundred miles south of here when a raven arrived in his camp. Just like your bird, this one made himself at home, kept cooing as if trying to communicate. Thomasie made no response, so the raven flew off, returning a moment later with a stick in his mouth. The strangest thing happened. The bird traced figures in the dirt, pausing every so often to stare into the man’s face, as if searching for a sign of recognition." Jonathan’s droopy face displays nothing. He takes another few bites. "It’s a true story. But you know I always thought it was too bad that guy didn’t copy the scratches down on a piece of paper. I would have liked to see what they looked like."

Jonathan looks me in the eye, and then tells me its time we left this place. His tone implies that it’s not some whim of his. We must leave. Our time is up. I don’t ask him to explain, it’s never been his manner to buoy up his hunches with logic. I request a few more hours. I want to take the boat a few miles offshore and look for live beluga whales. He nods, although a minute later I see him dissembling his tent. I eat my oatmeal with maple syrup and dried apricots plumped up from letting them sit overnight in a bowl full of water. Then I grab my journal to write down the story of Thomasie Cowcharlie. There on the last page, I discover a single sentence that, for the life of me, I can not remember writing, although it was probably entered sometime during those long hours of half sleep, half waking:

    What would this bird and I and have left to talk about after ten thousand years camped at this spot.