Raven: Mystery of spirit and science

High-pitched squeals pierced the air as the bald eagles above me announced their love to the world. She flattened her back accommodatingly; he arched his wings and rose over her.

Bald Eagles in love

Afterwards, he stood for a moment on her back as he dismounted, then they yodeled together in apparent delight.

Eagles yodeling after mating

At the end of all this drama, I walked on into the forest, still hearing the increasingly distant calls between this long-term couple, hoping (as they surely must be) that their romance would finally result in an eaglet or two later this spring.

Suddenly the forest rang with a resonant QUORK. (Click to hear the call.)

Raven was back! Raven’s deep, authoritative voice took control of the air. The eagles’ joyous calls suddenly seemed timid and gossipy.

Raven profile, almost obscured deep in woods

I’d encountered ravens in my park for one brief period in each of the past three years: first in January, the next year in February, and now in March. They’re fairly uncommon in Seattle, so each time it’s been a thrill. This year there were two, calling to each other across the forest as they flew restlessly from tree to tree.

The presence in the forest was unambiguously Raven, not “a raven”; the voice made that clear. Raven: Spirit of Darkness, Creator of humans, Trickster.

Illustration by Gustav Doré, from a remarkable edition of Poe's "The Raven" (1884). Click image for Wikimedia link.

A depiction of the Haida creation story, in which Raven opens an oyster shell on the beach to release the first humans. Sculptor: Bill Reid. University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology. Photographer: Joe Goldberg. Click image for Wikimedia link.

Ravens in Winter was my introduction to the passion of naturalist Bernd Heinrich for ravens and other corvids. Heinrich is a naturalist of depth, devotion, and humility—and a gifted artist as well. Observing wild ravens, Heinrich witnessed behavior that seemed altruistic: discovering food in the frozen Maine winter, ravens called to each other rather than scarfing down everything they could gobble up before anyone else arrived. Puzzled, he pursued the scientific mystery of this apparent generosity, spending many frigid nights with his avian “research associates” until he finally figured out what was going on.

Raven seems to be altruistic both in the Maine woods and in Haida mythology. But is there just a glint of mischief in his eye each time?

Heinrich carried his raven research forward in Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds, becoming a virtual raven family member as he lived with ravens to try to understand their intelligence, their affection, their language, their play.

I won’t spoil Heinrich’s compelling story of his investigations in the Maine winter – you’ll have to read it for yourself! And none of us have yet learned the end of Creator Raven’s adventure in letting us humans out of the oyster shell…will the Trickster have the last word?

Whether we marvel at Raven through the disciplined work of science or through awe of his spirit-presence, it’s an honor to be in his company. Raven, thank you for your visit to my little forest, and I hope you’ll return. Your voice still rings in my ears.

Raven, with a twinkle. Colorado, 2010.


2 responses to “Raven: Mystery of spirit and science

  1. What a wonderful blog, Trileigh! You link so many sensory, artistic, spiritual and visual treats together with your wonderful writing. Next best thing to being in your presence. (Though there’s no real substitute for that!)

  2. Elize Van Zandt

    I’ve read Ravens in Winter and loved it too. Such incredibly smart birds, those Ravens. We have them in abundance here in the desert, following people into these arid lands. The downside is that they have acquired a taste for baby tortoises, a threatened species. Anyhow, I really liked your piece and your reverence for ravens. Your blogs are always a treat to read. However, for me the excitement was hearing about the breeding bald eagles.

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