Talking to Ravens

The Canadian Rockies aren’t just mountains. They’re jarring. They shake you. I was on my way there after emigrating from California. I was looking for ravens, which I’d heard flew among the trees and tumbled through the wide-open sky.

We were heading East towards Banff and the National Parks. The mountains became increasingly more majestic, more immediate, and intoxicating. Growing up in Utah, I’d seen plenty of mountains, but nothing like these. The Trans-Canadian Highway snaked through the pass beside rivers, dense with glacial silt, that glistened like strands of aquamarine. It was Summer Solstice. The Winter runoff was still cascading down the jagged slopes in fractured streams and waterfalls.

At a gas station, the first raven appeared. It landed on the pump and stared at me. I’d assumed that ravens were the size of crows, only with larger beaks. This Raven was more than twice that size.  A row of tiny feathers on the top of his head flared up in a crooked mohawk. His wing and tail were tattered and coal black, with an opalescent sheen. He let out a full-throated squawk. The pump shut off and spit out a receipt. I reached in the car for my camera and tossed a cheese puff on the pavement. The raven looked at it, then looked back at me with an expression that said, “That’s the best you can do?” It was all I had in reach. I tossed another, farther away. He snatched up both, and returned to the pump. Orange crumbs flew like sparks from his beak and scattered around him like embers. When I aimed my camera, the Raven spit up the cheese puffs in a big orange glob. He defiantly glared at me with his head slightly tilted, wings halfway spread. After another guttural squawk, he flew across the street and landed on table outside a Tim Horton’s. My eyes were locked on him. I almost didn’t notice the second raven scoop up the orange mound, and join him. They shared my chewed-up offering. They’re a couple.

My friend Jonas, who volunteered at a bird sanctuary, told me that both ravens and crows mate for life. He told me that a group of crows was called a murder; a group of ravens, an unkindness. I knew ravens were once thought to be bad omens—harbingers of death and war.  Jonas told me it was because they were often seen on ancient battlefields, enthusiastically gorging themselves on the flesh and bone of the fallen. He went on about how a raven’s brain was bigger than a crows.

“Ravens have a much bigger vocabulary too and can learn human words and phrases, they mimic the sounds they hear.”

“I had no idea,” I said.

“We had a raven at the sanctuary named Elvira. She would make the sound of the squeaky cupboard door where the feed was kept. Taunting the other birds with false hope was her guilty pleasure. Their memories are keen. They never forget anyone that does them wrong or shows them kindness.”

I thought of the crows in my old neighbourhood. I was sure they held a grudge on me. We had a bird-bath fountain in our back yard. It attracted robins, blue jays, and finches. Crows showed up one Spring and the other birds stayed away. I noticed the water in the fountain had become milky with a greasy film on the water’s surface. After noticing an unpleasant smell, I decided to drain and change the water. I routed the pump to spill over onto the grass. Minutes later, the water had drained from the basin, exposing a macabre collection of decomposing chicken heads. Dead eyes stared up at me and a jolt of horror passed through me in a silent scream. Leo, my next-door neighbour, saw me jump back.

“What’s wrong?” he said.

“Chicken heads,” I said, pointing to the fountain.

“Damn processing plant!” he said. “They’ve left their dumpsters open to the crows again. I’m reporting this to the City.”

Leo offered me the use of his power washer. When the crows caught me cleaning out their treasure-trove they squawked with fury. From then on, whenever I took my dog for a walk, a chorus of abrasive vengeance followed. They never singled out my partner; only me.

***

After finishing their snack at Tim Hortons, the raven couple flew into the trees. Our journey continued. Ice covered mountains jutted up on either side of the Icefields Parkway that stretched for miles towards the Athabaska Glacier. Cottony clouds tumbled swiftly over the taller peaks, causing shafts of sunlight to dance on the ice and snow. We stopped at a vibrant turquoise lake that mirrored the mountains behind it. Sight-seeing tourists like us stood in awe, trying to capture splendour with their cameras.  A small grey bird with black wings perched on a bear-proof garbage can beside the car. I took a picture, wishing it were my old raven friend.

“Turn around,” my partner said in a whisper.

A raven was hopping through the dandelions and grass. The top of his head was shiny and slicked back. I aimed my camera. A second raven appeared in my viewfinder. Two ravens in one shot! I pushed the shutter button at the perfect moment. Then a notification on my camera said, “out of memory.”

“No!” I yelled.

Both ravens fluttered into the air, leaving shrill kaws echoing in their wake.

“Come back! Please, come back!” I shouted.

I wasn’t sure why I had this obsession to take raven pictures. Ravens weren’t on my radar until I moved to Vancouver. I’d never seen any real ravens, but I kept noticing them everywhere in the indigenous art.

According to the Haida, a raven hatched the first humans from a cockle shell—after the great flood waters receded. A raven spotted a shell rocking back and forth on the beach. With his strong beak, he pried it open and found tiny creatures, huddled together inside. The raven decided not to swallow them, because he was lonely and wanted company. The timid humans refused to leave their vessel, but with his trickster ways, the raven eventually coaxed them out.  Artist Bill Reid carved out this ancient story from a four-and-a-half-ton block of golden cedar. His magnificent sculpture lives beneath a domed skylight at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. I remember sitting in the museum rotunda,  gazing up at the enormous raven, perched on the shell with his wings half spread. Inside the shell, six human forms are suspended in reluctance. It evoked in me the familiar chord of apprehension that comes right before laying a stroke of paint on a blank canvass, or typing the first sentence of an essay. The Raven with his strange wisdom and appetite for mischief is like a guardian of divine discontent; that gnawing spark that eventually pulls me out of myself.

***

Before heading back to the cabin, we decided to hike to a waterfall. Being this far North made the longest day of the year even longer.  At 9:30pm the sun shined with afternoon brilliance, gracing the waterfall mist with a rainbow. On the trail, we passed a Mennonite family. The Father, tall and stern, gripped a walking stick, and nodded with a furrowed brow. His wife smiled. All the kids, in single file, wore brightly coloured running shoes that clashed with their old-fashioned attire.

At the car, I was tucking my camera away when several ravens descended and landed around us. I tossed a hand-full of cheese puffs into the air. The ravens devoured them in a fluttering frenzy. Of course I took pictures.

“Maybe you’ll remember when I come back this way,” I said. I tossed another handful of cheese puffs. “Next time, I’ll bring healthier snacks.”

The Mennonite Family had returned from the falls and gathered by an old school bus. A little girl in a white bonnet said, “Look Mommy, that man is talking to the birds.”

The Father started the loud engine. Then, without leaving a single orange crumb behind, the unkindness of ravens rose up and shattered the sky.

Solstice Raven

18″ x 24″ Acrylic on Canvas
I painted this experimental piece as I was writing and editing this essay. I was curious how the painting would influence the writing and vise versa. I plan to do more ravens in the future which I will post here.

7 Comments

  1. Judy Sharp

    You have inherited the wonderful gift of words from Grandma Stephensen and your mother. What a beautiful picture you have painted in my mind. Hope you are well.

    • William - Author

      Thank you! I wish that I’d discovered writing earlier. I fantasied about being a writer as a child but too afraid to try. Grammar intimidated me—sometimes it still does.

  2. Judy

    Col. Sanders launched his chicken business when he was 65. It is never too late.

  3. Natalie Kahn Aguilar

    So entertaining! I love how you have connected with the wisdom of the ravens, and you make the reader feel it as well. The paintings are the perfect accompaniments, they tell another dimension of the story.

    • William - Author

      Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

  4. Devora Lillian Polakoff

    J’adore your writing and these stories are so wonderful .you can write a collection of stories with painting , a story picture book!!! for children and adults . I knew of a “murder of crows” but the “unkindness of Ravens” is Awesome!! Thank you dearest Shane .. haha cheese puffs . xx, dev’

    • William - Author

      That’s a great idea! One of my Art Professors suggested the same thing, but I thought he was kidding.
      I’m so glad you liked the story.

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