Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Melanie Madden on Craig Childs’ “Raven” and Barry Lopez’ “The Raven”

Some texts are more prescriptive than others. Two weeks ago I showed a class of freshmen a Mark Bittman TED talk on the threat that industrialized meat production poses, and today three of those students told me that since watching the video they’ve been eating less meat, or have stopped eating meat altogether. My reactions to texts are seldom so transformative, but after reading Barry Lopez’ “The Raven,” and Craig Childs’ chapter “Raven” from The Animal Dialogues, I got a pretty fierce itch to see a raven out in the world—out in the desert.

Lopez says, “If you want to know more about the raven: bury yourself in the desert so that you have a commanding view of the high basalt cliffs where he lives. Let only your eyes protrude. Do not blink—the movement will alert the raven to your continued presence.” A fine recommendation! I’m not sure I have the time to bury myself in the desert, and certainly not for the span of time that Lopez recommends (“Wait until a generation of ravens has passed away”); but I’ve got an afternoon to kill, a rickety Schwinn, and the Rio Vista Natural Resources Park, beside the Rillito River bike path, is a short ride away. I’ll just bike on down and, when I get there, sit still. Surely, then the ravenspotting will commence.

Of course I realize that a riverbottom isn’t exactly a high cliff with a commanding view, but there is precedent for the observation of ravens in this less likely location: the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum’s webpage on ravens includes an anecdote by naturalist Peggy Larson which begins, “The folklore of more than one group of native Americans includes stories about coyote and raven interactions. I witnessed such an encounter early one morning while walking the banks of the Rillito River near Tucson.” Only I missed that key word—near. The park and adjacent well-traveled bike path, on this overcast Sunday afternoon in January, may boast native flora and fauna, but its location is still urban. Joggers, cyclists, walkers, strollers; all of Tucson seemed to be out, enjoying their active lifestyles and using their outdoor voices. My stillness would go unnoticed amid all this motion and noise. I had no hope of seeing a raven.

“Ravenous” means “rapacious,” or “very eager or greedy for food, satisfaction, or gratification.”

There is something uncanny about ravens. This is not all Poe’s fault, though I think it’s fair that he take some of the blame for the way we associate this bird with the gothic, the supernatural, or the downright creepy in the popular imagination. Barry Lopez reaches back farther than Poe for his treatment of the raven; his depiction is mythic, certainly influenced by tribal lore. His essay is a fable, telling how once there were crows in the desert, but now only the silent, cautious ravens remain. After the crows’ gruesome demise, “Finally, there is this: one morning four ravens sat at the edge of the desert waiting for the sun to rise. They had been there all night and the dew was like beads of quicksilver on their wings. Their eyes were closed and they were as still as the cracks in the desert floor.

“The wind came off the snow-capped peaks to the north and ruffled their breath feathers. Their talons arched in the white earth and they smoothed their wings with sleek, dark bills. At first light their bodies swelled and their eyes flashed purple. When the dew dried on their wings they lifted from the desert floor and flew away in four directions. Crows would never have had the patience for this.”

This image, of the four ravens flying in four directions at dawn, haunts me. I think that I want to see a raven (“Can’t you just go to the zoo?” A friend asks, helpfully. No.) in its natural habitat as a kind of affirmation. If a raven looks at me, and says nothing, then I will know, and I will feel, that I belong in this desert, too.

Ravens are omnivorous and opportunistic.

Craig Childs is typically not so fantastic in his sketches of a lifetime’s worth of “Uncommon encounters in the wild,” which could hardly be called fabulist, but in his treatment of ravens, he moves in a different direction. He practically gets mystical talking about the raven, saying “I am always prepared for the impossible from ravens. Animals of omens and nevermores, they rule the desert, able to reach every crack and ledge while I am restricted to the ground as if wearing chains.” Childs then narrates an unsettling scene, explaining how, on a hike in Southern Utah, he follows a raven into a canyon and finds there a congregation of the birds who demonstrate loud, flapping agitation at his intrusion. Describing the encounter, he gives the ravens dialogue:

            “‘Listen to us!’ cried the ravens.

            “‘I don’t speak your language!’ I called out, exasperated.

            “Hearing my voice, the ravens became only more infuriated. I was disoriented, watching them dive around me, and I could barely stand. Flashes of sky showed through ragged wings. I stumbled and found myself on my knees in the sand.

            “‘Listen to us!’ they kept crying. ‘This is not your place!’”

Childs concludes his raven tale with the acknowledgment that “Anthropomorphism is generally frowned upon. It is said to be improper to see animals the same way we view ourselves.” But in his admiration for the ravens’ intelligence, their ingeniousness, he notes “It seems just as odd, though, to sequester ourselves in a cheerless vault of sentience, sole proprietors of smarts and charm . . . I do not want to be a lonely species set adrift from all the rest. I want the ravens that we saw to have been performing a ritual, animals of sensibility. I envision a righteous murder performed by birds living in a moral universe. I yearn for them to have societies, secret handshakes and knocks, associations and enterprises.”  

Ravens belong to a family of birds called corvids, which includes crows, magpies, and jays. These are considered to be the most intelligent of birds. They “employ more adaptations and innovations than any other bird,” Childs says, and he is not alone in his desire to believe that this intelligence could have a moral component. Blogger Dan Dreifort’s essay, “Corvus corax’ exemplarycognitive umbra vis-à-vis de Waal’s Pongidae ignoratio elenchi” examines the ways in which ravens’ demonstrated cognitive abilities suggest “their potential membership in the morals fraternity” (with a note that primatologist Frans de Waal declined to be interviewed for this piece; I can’t imagine why de Waal wouldn’t want to be associated with a blog called “the Dirty Rag”). Dreifort concludes that “Ravens use logic to assess and solve problems and they have a concept of past and future. They can mull over what they know and apply it to new situations. Ravens communicate relative concepts and emotions and share food. They recognize individuals across species and recognize and react to knowledge of others. . . . I cannot argue that ravens are more deserving of the moral agent tag than primates, but I’ve presented a wealth of recent evidence to suggest that a moral raven is not entirely impossible and certainly not significantly less likely than a moral chimp.” Is this why the raven is so uncanny? Do we see ourselves in their blue-black feathers, in their beady dark eyes?

A group of ravens is called an unkindness.

On that cloudy Sunday afternoon, after wandering the banks of the Rillito River among the active Tucsonans and scanning the skies for the better part of an hour, I parked myself on a bench beneath a ramada at Rio Vista. The concrete bench is enclosed on two sides with high, sheer walls, and I tucked myself into this corner, tried to imagine myself in a canyon, my back pressed to a high basalt cliff, only my eyes protruding. I tilted my head up and enjoyed the novelty of the winter sky in Southern Arizona, certain that this grey, gothic afternoon would naturally produce a visit from an otherworldly bird. Bare mesquite branches stretched black fingers in my field of vision, and I waited, quietly. Loud children came to play in the ramada and regarded me with curiosity. I saw no raven. Eventually, I tired of waiting and left in disappointment.

Ravens are awesome. Nevertheless, I will be cheering for the 49ers in the Super Bowl.

Melanie Madden is an MFA student at the University of Arizona.

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