Thursday, October 22, 2015

Never Mind Nevermore (An Ode to the Raven)

Photo by Dave Stalling -- a photo that inspired this essay
Never mind Poe’s Nevermore. Ravens aren’t the dark, sinister omens of death and despair most European cultures historically made them out to be.  Swedes thought ravens were the ghosts of murdered people; Germans saw them as souls of the damned; The Danish considered them “terrible animals” that could lead people astray. Groups, or flocks, are referred to as an “unkindness” of ravens, or a “conspiracy.”  My experiences with them greatly differ; they seem more conscientious, considerate, sensible and sane than most humans I’ve known. I prefer to think of them as ebony angels (mischievous ones), like miniature black Labradors with wings, only smarter.

Linguists say ravens are one of only four known animals – in addition to humans, ants and bees – that demonstrate “displacement,” or, “the capacity to communicate about objects or events that are distant in space or time from the communication.” Young “teenage” ravens were once observed – after discovering a carcass guarded by adult ravens – returning to their roost at night and “reporting” their find. The next day, they led a flock (or conspiracy, if you will) of other young ravens to the carcass, fought off the adults, and shared their stolen feast.  Some scientists argue that the advent of “linguistic displacement” was “the most important event in the evolution of human language,” and ravens are the only other vertebrate to share this with us humans.

They make for a loud and vocal conspiracy. In addition to tapping and gently rapping, rapping at chamber doors, researchers have identified up to 30 categories of vocalizations by ravens, including alarm calls, chase calls, and flight calls. They also mimic sounds, including human speech. (Conceivably they could, indeed -- like an echo -- murmur back the word, `Lenore!') They mate for life, and if one loses its mate they’ve been known to imitate the calls of its lost partner to encourage its return. They’ve been known to imitate wolves to attract them to intact carcasses that are difficult for them to break open with their beaks. When the wolves are done, the ravens move in for the leftovers. Ravens also use rather sophisticated non-vocal signals, sometimes pointing their beaks to indicate an object to another bird like we do with our fingers. They also hold up objects to get another bird’s attention.

Ravens have been observed pushing rocks on people to keep them from climbing to their nests; steeling fish by pulling anglers lines out of the water; playing dead near carcasses to selfishly scare other ravens away from their food.  Ravens often bury excess food in caches for future meals. Sometimes they’ll watch other ravens bury their food, remember the locations, then steal it. As a result, some ravens will fly extra distances from a food source to find better hiding places.  If a raven knows another is watching, it might pretend to put food in one place while really hiding it in another.

From what I’ve seen, they have a playful sense of humor. I’ve watched ravens taunt my Labradors, apparently for their own (and mine, but not so much the dogs) amusement. They’ve been observed playing “keep-away” with other animals such as wolves and otters. They’ve been known to use snow-covered roofs as slides and sled down snowy hills. They sometimes make toys with sticks, pine cones and rocks to play with each other or by themselves.

They form teenage gangs. When ravens reach adolescence, they leave home to eat and roost together until they mature and find a mate.  These days of teenage angst are apparently as tough for them as they can be for us humans; scientists have found higher levels of stress hormones in teenage raven droppings than in the droppings of mated adults.

But it gets better. Their friends will support them through tough times. Unlike some humans I have met, ravens are capable of feeling empathy. Although they can be suspicious and sometimes fight with ravens they don’t know, when they lose battles others console them. They also remember birds they like and will respond in friendly ways even years after last seeing them.

That’s just a smitten of what we know about Ravens – likely less than they know about us. No doubt there exists many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore about these remarkable birds, lost among a plethora of natural knowledge once gained from intimate and intricate connections to the planet that sustains us – this ailing planet we selfishly and greedily forget we share with neighbors we no longer know.

Once, while hunting elk on a bitterly cold, snowy November day in the Bitterroot Mountains near my home in
Montana, a raven circled close above my head then off and away in a direction I was not headed. Soon he returned, circled, and headed in the same direction yet again. And then again. Hell, why not? I thought. I changed course, and went the raven's way.  Soon after, I found and killed a bull elk waiting out the storm bedded under a large spruce. While boning out the meat, I frequently shared scraps with my new friend, and some of his friends who soon gathered around. Coincidence? Or an ancient mutualistic, symbiotic relationship we've mostly disconnected from?  Another time, deep in the remote, arid canyons of southern Utah, I had gone several brutally hot days without water and was getting pretty concerned when I looked up and saw a raven on a ledge above me, water dripping from its beak. I climbed up to find a large, deep puddle of rain water in a natural bowl carved into the slickrock. I gratefully shared my last energy bar with that great, big, beautiful bird.

Here's my advice: Get out and meet a raven -- or their smaller cousins, the crows, if you’re out of raven range. Forget forevermore! Say “hello.” It’s a good start. You might be pleasantly surprised to find they’re not the wicked black devils they’re often made out to be.  (Even Edgar’s “Prophet! . . . thing of evil! . . . bird or devil!” was merely a projection of the narrator’s own darkness.) Spend enough time around these birds, really get to know them, and these shadows quickly turn to light. Most Native Americans had a more informed view of these remarkable birds. Some worshiped ravens as Gods. Their myths and legends often described them as “sly tricksters” involved in the creation of the world. It makes as much sense as, if not more than, any other deity I've heard of. Make prayers to the Raven!

As for me: These ebony birds often beguile all my sad soul into smiling. I consider them friends. Good friends. For evermore.