The Raven

I have for years thought the raven to be a particularly admirable creature, but I could find no way to express my thought until one day I discovered that I wanted to be a raven.

It is not that I have any idealistic notion that existence would somehow be more pure if I were to shed my clothes and grow feathers, or that life would be easier if I searched for carrion instead of going to the grocery store.  Rather, I see that this fellow, the raven, has some capabilities that I, a human, do not have.  I would like to have those capabilities, to experience the natural forces, to see the world as the raven sees it.

For one thing, he can fly.  And by flying, I don’t mean propelling oneself through the air with much flutter and commotion, as ordinary birds do–which strikes me as an airborne version of the dog-paddle.  The raven doesn’t just fly–he soars.  He is the ballet artist of the sky.  When a raven departs a tree, there is no flapping or straining.  He merely spreads his wings, gives a little push with his toes, makes a gentle dive to gain speed, and is gone on the air currents.  How I struggled to learn to fly, first in a glider, and then in a powered airplane (which is a noisome abomination in a peaceful sky anyway).  I learned–a little–to ride the air currents, but I was never confident as a flyer.  The heights and the turbulent air made me uneasy.  Not so the raven.  In the air he has his very being.  He neither conquers it, nor does it rule him.  He belongs in it, as a trout belongs in the currents of a stream or as a tree belongs in a forest.  Unfortunately, my fellow humans cannot seem to find just where they belong, where they fit naturally, and so they they don’t fit comfortably into anything.

I have seen the raven in the Grand Canyon, where, simply by spreading his wings and soaring he could effortlessly go from the bottom of the canyon to the top in just a few minutes.  Such a journey takes me several hours and is marked more by grunt than by grace.

The raven has a sense of practical realism, a sense of sport in challenge, and a tremendous sense of humor.  If simple, practical transportation is a necessity at the moment, it is not beyond his dignity to flap wings–but he will do this only so long as urgently necessary.  After all, his place in the proper order of things is soaring, not flapping, and he obviously respects natural order.

Challenge he does not ignore.  I remember being in the woods late one afternoon, as the sun was settling toward the mountain and the first cool hints of approaching evening could be felt in the air.  I–or rather we, the raven and I–were in a broad little valley between ridges.  The raven was soaring at treetop height, seeking the last remnant of rising air that would carry him up into the sun and over the ridge.  I watched, fascinated, as he worked back and forth, flying very carefully so as not to ripple the air and waste an inch of altitude.  The sun sank lower, the shadows grew long, and not a puff of air moved.  The raven, in spite of his airmanship, also sank lower.  Finally he was below the treetops, and then among the trees.  He would bank his wings this way and that, twisting and turning to miss the branches.  But he would not flap.  This contest, this pull that the sinking sun cast upon the sinking but unflappable raven, went on for twenty minutes.  On his last pass, the raven was but a few feet over my head and we were both deep in shadow.  Yet his spirit of determination, his sense of game in which he was but one element, his idea of sport was rewarded.  Somewhere, out of my view, he caught a final bit of lift.  A few turns, and he was up in the last rays of sunlight and then soon above the ridge, leaving me in to contemplate my place in the advancing stillness.

For the raven, sport does not always take the form of a contest.  It can be just sport.  One windy day I sat at my table, looking out of the window at the ravens who were riding the upward splash of air caused by the impact of the wind against the cliff-edge of the canyon across the street.  One particular raven caught my attention, for, as he rode to the crest of the turbulent air wave, he pointed his head straight down and folded his wings.  Like a bullet, he dropped below the canyon rim and out of sight.  I waited, wondering what had become of him.  After a long minute–one of those minutes in which the clock seems to tick so slowly that you think you hear it creak–the raven reappeared, riding the air upward.  When he was a hundred feet above the top of the cliff he again folded his wings and dropped into the canyon.  And again, he rose to repeat this process.  I wished that I could have peered over the edge of the canyon, to see him as he sped toward the ground, spreading his wings at the last second and feeling a tremendous force as he pulled out of the dive.  This was clearly a game, a game of speed and timing, a game in which the wind was his plaything, a carnival ride with supreme thrills for the passenger.  Perhaps only ravens and little children know such ecstasy.

The raven can find sport even in work.  I have a large bird-feeding platform nailed to a pine tree in my back yard.  I would sometimes put suet there for the birds, and I discovered that, if I stayed indoors to watch through a window, the ravens would come to carry away the large pieces of fat.  Now feeling sporting myself, I put larger and larger pieces in the tray, just to see if the ravens would stay to eat what they could not carry off.  They would not, for I often found the larger pieces on the ground or caught in a tree branch, where they had been dropped by the retreating and overloaded would-be thieves.

I chanced to see the perfect match of big raven and big meat—a piece that was only a little too big.  The raven took it in his beak, and gracefully–as always–launched his glide down the gentle slope toward the canyon’s edge in the trees behind the house.  But the meat was just a little too heavy, and I, as a pilot, recognized that the loaded raven had his center of gravity too far forward.  This forced him against his will into a shallow dive, slightly toward the ground which also sloped downward in front of him.  He could have landed, or he could have flapped his wings–but neither would have been a sporting choice.  Or, by daring to skim the ground where his wings would provide more lift, he might have extended his glide to the edge of the canyon.  But such was not to happen, for the backyard fence presented an obstacle.  I waited for the crash, but saw that neither raven, pride, nor meat were damaged as he abruptly pulled up, grazed the top of the fence with his wings stalled, dropped into a dive on the far side, and was gone, victorious.  Such is his mixture of business and sport, a mixture of which most earthbound humans and all pilots dream.

Perhaps, of all the leavenings of life, it is shared humor that creates a sense of kinship.  I believe the ravens find humor in many things.  One day, shortly after the old broody hen hatched her chicks, I heard a terrible commotion in the chicken pen.  I looked out to see the mother hen, frantically trying to flap her way up to the top of the fence, where sat a raven who watched her antics with detached amusement.  She saw him as a predator, to be attacked and driven off.  He saw her as an ungainly beast, who could rise only a few feet before falling back to earth.  Months later, the ravens became so bold as to occasionally hop into the pen, not so much for the free chicken feed as to strut among the hens and establish themselves at the top of the order by pecking each hen!  This activity would be terminated by the resident rooster, who, regarding the hens as his flock, would eventually chase the ravens back into the air, only to have the process repeated another day.

Humor can be active fun, too.  I was out in the fields one day.  I suppose I thought I was hunting, but in actuality I was just being there, watching three ravens soar by overhead.  One raven was a few lengths behind the others, and as I watched, he executed a maneuver that aerobatic pilots can only approximate.  He started a roll, banking his wings.  After he had rolled about one-eighth of a turn, he abruptly pulled in his wings, and like a spinning ice skater, he greatly increased his rate of rotation.  Thus, he did a half-snap-roll until inverted.  Just when he was upside down, he extended his wings, stopping the roll, and proceeded to glide belly-up.  He soared forward a little, until he was just under his friend.  Because he came from behind, the friend seemed unaware of this approach to the bosom.  At just the right instant, the inverted aerobat reached upward with his feet, tickled the exposed tummy above, moved ahead, repeated the snap-roll until he was again right side up, and sped on in the lead with much caw-ing from all concerned.  It happened in the blink of an eye.  There will probably never be an airplane that does a snap-roll gracefully, by folding its wings.  And I will probably never learn to do snap-roll at all.  But even if there were, and if I did, could not do it with such a delicate balance of position and timing as to make it funny.

Indeed, I would like to be a raven, to be at home in the heights, to soar with grace, to enjoy sport in the challenges of everyday living, and to laugh as I cavort in the skies.  It’s not that I’m dissatisfied with this life.  It’s not that I’m ungrateful for what I am.  But, if there really is a reincarnation, others may choose whatever earthbound forms they wish.  I want to be a raven.

(1984)

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