I was away from home on Christmas Day, in Sitka, Alaska with two co-workers. The town was closed up for the holiday and big, puffy snowflakes were falling. We decided to walk the Totem Pole Trail, a mile-long trail through the woods that follows the shoreline the first half-mile and then curves back to town along the Indian River.
We were halfway along the shoreline when we heard strange sounds from high in the trees: muted bleeps and squawks, like the sound of a computer held underwater.
“I think it’s a raven,” I said in response to my friends’ bewildered glances. I’ve spent a lot of time in Alaska, and I’ve heard the birds’ wide range of vocal possibilities. After I said this, a large bird took flight from the tree.
We walked a bit farther and heard the vocalization again, and another taking of flight. Then again, farther down the trail, as if the bird was coaxing us along. As we neared the turning point of the trail, a cacophony of raven sound rose. The cries were so uproarious that I thought there must be a predator in the area, or something unusual happening, to cause such a disturbance.
Creeping forward through dense saplings, we followed the sound to the river and spied ravens in the trees lining both banks. Probably a dozen. By now the birds were quiet. All faced out at the river.
As we watched, a big bald eagle came swooping up the river corridor. It whooshed down and snatched a small fish from the water. As this happened, the ravens broke out in a maelstrom of sound—caws, acks, sirens, computer squawks, throat clicks, bongos—as if they were the raucous audience at some sort of avian Olympics.
I felt we’d walked into one of The Far Side comics—like the one with the martini-drinking cows who get back on all fours when they see humans approaching. Only the birds hadn’t seen us.
As we exited the forest, a raven (I like to believe it was the one who led us in the woods) shot ahead and landed on top of a totem pole directly in front of us. At the top of the pole was a carved raven head. The real raven turned until its head was in the exact position of the carved head below.
Really, it did this.
Feeling a little dumbstruck, we decided we weren’t ready to return to our hotel. We found the Pioneer Bar open, shot inside, and debriefed on our bizarre experiences over a Christmas beer.
The following is excerpted from Natural History, by Pliny the Elder of Rome, born 23 AD in what is now Northern Italy:
Let our thanks be given to the raven as it is due. During the principate of Tiberius a young raven, from a brood hatched on top of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, flew down to a shoemaker’s shop nearby, where it was welcome to the owner because of religious considerations. It soon learnt how to talk, and every morning flew to the Rastra facing the forum and greeted Tiberius by name, then Germanicus and Drusus Caesar, and, after that, the people of Rome as they passed by; finally it returned to the shop. The raven was remarkable in that it performed this duty for several years.
The tenant of the next shoemaker’s shop killed the bird, either out of rivalry or in a sudden fit of anger because he claimed that some droppings had spotted his shoes. This aroused such an uproar among the general public that the man was driven out of the district and subsequently lynched, while the bird’s funeral was celebrated with great pomp.
Walking down the street one day, I heard a cat. I looked around in the bushes, and all I saw was a crow – low enough in the branches to give the impression of a cat. I soon gave up on my search and continued on my merry way (an activity reserved now for hobbits and insurgents in the forest of Nottingham) when I heard the cat again. I looked around, and again, all I saw was the crow, as I proceeded to heap all sorts of human motivations upon the creature: Trickery, Mirth, Irony, Impersonation. This ‘meow’ was a notion both it and I could understand, and not bad – though a little nasally. Still, there was no cat to be seen. And the crow would not make the sound when I was looking, as its beak transformed itself into a smile. Or did I just make the whole thing up?
“In the woods,
I am the absence of woods…”
When you first enter a promising area of birding—be it near trees, bush, or field—most of the birds fly away. They hide. Although you still hear them, or a chorus of them, you can’t see a one.
It’s only after you’ve stood still for an unspecified amount of time, when you’ve forgotten about the hubbub of your compartmentalized life, when the nagging of bills and the obligations of deadlines cease, when all of it drifts off as far away as possible, away with the breeze and the rustle of leaves, when all of a half-hour passes, or more—you don’t know—when you’ve taken less than ten steps, when a tiny shadow of a creature alights on a far branch, when three of them do, when you put the binoculars to your face and discover of patch of color so brilliantly yellow on a songbird wing, when all of the colors of the afternoon, when all the trees and the sky and the water, when all is saturated in the calm of the day, when a harmless, colorful visitor alights into view and prompts you to do nothing but admire, when, in the woods, you become a part of the woods…
The following was taken from a January 28th, 2010 article in the ‘Seattle Times’, entitled ‘10th anniversary of Alaska Flight 261’, a flight that claimed all of the 88 passengers and crew, after going down in the Pacific off the coast of southern California. I found the article entirely moving. Here’s a small excerpt from it:‘Clinging to Memories.’
“The survivors of Flight 261 have found ways to heal, cope, and endure because they’ve had to.
“Some found solace in their faith. Many cling to the good memories or see evidence of their loved one’s spirit around them.
“Pamela Sparks said she believes her son has left pennies for her to show her he’s there. Pierrete Ing believes her son comforts her by returning lost objects. Paul Bernard and his wife believe their son, Michael, has visited them as a crow.”
-Christine Clarridge, Seattle Times
That first morning, I awoke to the sound of bongo drums on the street. To add to the strangeness, it was still dark out, and devastatingly cold. What’s more, there seemed to be more than one drummer. In fact, the drummers seemed to be answering one another, in concert – as if holding a conversation involving several bongo players. When it grew light, I went outside to investigate. Because of the cold, I wrapped a wool blanket around my head and walked out into the street.
There I discovered a group of ravens imitating exactly the beat of riffing bongo players. I found the big black birds overpopulating the Fairbanks rooftops, swinging on the electric wires, and on the sidewalks, digging through garbage.
In the local coffee shop, the birds were the main topic of conversation. The residents were collectively convinced something bad was about to befall their town.
C.A. Willis, Seattle