Raven Reconnaissance : A Student Blog
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The life of a student in APU’s Masters Degree Program in Outdoor & Environmental Education is a busy one. There are books and articles to be read, papers to write, projects to complete, curricula to be designed, students to be taught and, of course, stopping to eat or sleep every so often also helps one keep going. With all of those demands it seems, strangely enough, that one thing that might often get neglected is just getting out into the natural world to enjoy the many benefits that come from time outdoors. That might be time to recreate and get some physical exercise or just time to unwind and for rejuvenation. Time to look, listen and learn from the natural world. To do that very thing we focus so much of our attention on learning how to more effectively teach our students and program participants or even the general public how to do themselves.
Students in the MSOEE program this semester who are enrolled in the Power of Place in Education course that takes place in Palmer on APU’s Kellogg Campus are being “required” to slow down even just a little. As part of that class each student has been tasked with finding some ravens to spend time with each week. The goal: to observe, listen, think about and learn from that experience. A secondary goal: to reflect on that interaction and to integrate material covered in the course with the experience in 500 words to create a teaching narrative. Each week the class will decide which one they wish to share with the rest of the APU community and it will be shared for others to hopefully learn a little bit about ravens and a little bit about the students in the MSOEE program. The first of these natural history notes- Raven Reconnaissance follows here.
Today I watched ravens through a grimy windshield. The weather was gross, the roads were gross, and I have always subconsciously felt that ravens were gross. After all, I was watching them in a back-alley parking lot and most of them were scavenging from the organic and locally sourced dumpster.
But two birds caught my eye, or rather, my ear. A large puffed-up raven was perched atop a streetlight and he seemed to be calling to a raven across the street. But it wasn’t the raspy-creepy “Caw… Caw…” that I expected, it was light, resonant and musical. It sounded like the baritone version of a robin or nightingale or a deep slow-motion “whippor…” of the whippoorwill. I stepped out of my car to watch and listen: within moments the raven’s partner flapped up beside him, listening to his call and occasionally chirping a similar baritone response.
As the puffed-up raven continued his haunting chirrup, he sidestepped along the light-post, sidling up next to his partner much like how a romantic middle-school boy not so casually scoots down the bleachers toward his crush. He bowed and sang and scooted, bowed and sang and scooted. When he reached his partner the bond was evident: this was not a new courtship, this was an old married couple. She was calm in his presence, he preened and sang; they were at ease.
I grew up hearing about ravens, watching ravens, even judging ravens. In the Bible, the first bird sent from Noah’s ark to search for dry land is the raven. The prophet Elijah is cared for by ravens, who bring him bread and meat each day in the midst of a national famine. Pacific Northwest Native Americans considered the Raven as both a powerful creator and trickster. But despite this rich and timeless cultural presence of ravens, I considered them pesky and ominous creatures.
Perhaps it was Walt Disney’s fault, portraying ravens as the evil sidekick or creepy omen of bad things to come (see Sleeping Beauty for the prime example). Perhaps it was Edgar Allen Poe’s fault, with The Raven ominously enhanced through repeated readings in English classes and the infamous James Earl Jones reading in the 1990 episode of The Simpson’s: Treehouse of Horror. In my hometown, ravens and their crow cousins were seen as a nuisance. Whatever combination of factors it may have been, I found those bleak and judgmental stereotypes broken on this particular day.
As old man raven expressed gentle love and respect through his lilting, beautiful song, I was reminded of Biblical ravens as hardy, compassionate providers; In Native American lore as powerful, courageous and compassionate creators.
Bernd Heinrich describes the various courting displays of ravens in his volume Ravens in Winter, with a notable observation:
In most animals, courting is seen (by humans) as an immediate prelude to mating. This may be true for robins or warblers, which do not have much time to waste after meeting each other… But I suspect the situation is different for ravens… In them, courting per se could be the culmination of a long process, as it sometimes is in humans.”
He goes on to describe the aerial acrobatics, bowing, preening, strutting, etc. that indicate various courting and play behaviors of ravens. I had never considered ravens mating for life, let alone displaying “off-season” courtship behavior. Another resource described how ravens, like humans, must sometimes work to maintain attachment with their mates, exhibiting behavior that strengthens their relationship (http://birdnote.org/show/ravens-love-song).
Back in the parking lot, the song continued, with calls that occasionally sounded like a sweeter version of a crosswalk signal beeping to indicate that it was now safe to cross. As I watched and listened to the pair of ravens, I found myself feeling safe, like they were telling me the road ahead was clear. I was reminded that even on the grossest of days, ravens are not gross. They may be opportunists, as old man raven indicated when he left the light post for a fresh addition to the local organic dumpster, but they have much to teach us and I, for one, have much to learn.
Author’s Note: Might it be mere coincidence that I observed an old married couple of ravens on Valentine’s Day? I suspect it was not.
The Dumpster behind McDonald’s
This charming locale offers a cornucopia of delectable delights. From the fatty remains of recently-expired burgers to grease-laden overcooked French fries, the variety of foods on offer ensure that your taste buds will never tire of this eatery. Located in downtown Palmer, the crowds can often be imposing, so arrive at first dawn to try and beat the rush. Be on the lookout for specials: when the lid is off, everything must go! Beware of the midweek garbage collection day and plan to dine the day before. This restaurant offers no organic options.
The Glenn Highway
This bistro offers a diverse selection of all-natural meals. The wait can be long, but with a little effort, the patient eater is rewarded. We recommend flying low along the highway between Palmer and Eagle River. Keep an eye out for arctic hare, porcupines, ground hogs, squirrels, and The Glenn Highway’s special entrée: moose. Be sure to act fast when you spot dinner, your squashed sustenance will not remain intact long if it sits in the middle of the road. Drag what you can to the road’s shoulder and enjoy your meal while soaking up views of the Alaska Range to the north and the Chugach National Forest to the south. But be careful: if you hear the hum of tires on a rumble strip, hit the air.
A Moose Carcass near Hunter Creek
Though this café requires considerable effort to reach, its bounty is unparalleled. In spite of offering only one simple dish, A Moose Carcass near Hunter Creek is the premier restaurant in the Mat-Su Borough. Finding this place can be tricky, so make friends at your local nightly roost and keep your ears open for directions. Once you visit and have your fill, be sure to tell your companions as this café survives solely on word-of-mouth advertising. To keep things interesting, this place has been known to relocate nightly at the whim of a local bear. We recommend visiting in the winter while the bear hibernates. Due to its rustic setting amidst an assortment of hungry predators, exercise caution if you are the first patron of the day.
The Woods of Spring Creek Farm
This restaurant is an old standby of local cuisine culture. Replete with grains and berries, this location caters specifically to the customer seeking something a little different than the usual fare. Additionally, The Woods of Spring Creek Farm offers a unique you-kill-it-you-eat-it option for those seeking fresh shrews and voles. Be advised, this restaurant is often stalked by bleary-eyed graduate students clutching pens and notebooks who insist on staring at you while you eat.
The morning begins like any other weekend day that we somehow have off together. We wake early, me getting out of bed first, Erin getting up 15 minutes later. We make coffee, eat a quick breakfast and pack the car.
We arrive two hours later and begin to ski — Erin out front charging, me in the back hauling the heavy sled full of our climbing gear. We have a 5-mile approach, and my mind wanders to the reasons we do these things.
I hear a familiar “quark, quark” and see a pair of ravens chasing each other overhead. As they pass I wonder, “Why do they do those things?”
We round many bends, crisscross the frozen river, and an hour later arrive at our destination. As we transform from skiers to climbers, I can’t shake the question – “why do we do these things”?
The two of us fall into routine. I rack up and Erin stacks the rope. We both tie- in, we double-check our systems and ensure we are ready to begin. There is no backtracking; there is no stopping after we have begun.
I look over my shoulder and see what, I believe, is the same pair of ravens I spotted earlier. This time they have chased each other to a nearby snow slope and begun to hop up and down in the snow, flapping their wings. One lies on its back and slides down the bank, to what appears to be the excitement of the other. I wonder, “Why do they do those things”?
The pillar, which from far way looked relatively benign, bulges out from beneath. My tools feel natural in my glove-covered hands. I feel good, or I tell myself I do. I look at Erin, and I say, “Climbing.” She responds, “Climb on.” I wonder, “Why do we these things”?
The ground seems to move away from me, even though I am moving away from it. The ice has reattached to the actual cliff face, and the gong-like echo has stopped when I strike it with my tools. I place an ice screw and hear a “quark, quark” from behind me. Maybe the raven is asking its partner, “Why do they do those things”?
The angle of the climb eases off, I hike up some snow, and I am face to face with another, seemingly benign section of ice that is actually steeper in reality. “Why do I do these things”?
I place another screw. I feel for consistency, and I watch the core come out as I drill it into the ice. I know in my head that ice screws are for peace of mind only and are not to be trusted. Rule Number 1 when ice climbing is: Don’t Fall. Looking up at the next section, I see two black birds fly overhead.
I don’t move. In fact, I don’t move for 25 minutes. I step up; I step down. I try to move. I’m paralyzed. My mind flashes to the two ravens flying through the air, playing in the snow. “Why do they do those things? Why do I do these things?” I take a deep breath, I silence my internal doubts, and then I climb. Swing, swing, kick, kick. The routine numbs my mind but heightens my senses. I am nowhere but everywhere all at once. I am the decider of my own fate. I am… present, in the moment, living for now.
I top out and hike the last 10 meters in snow-covered off-angle ice. I hear the familiar “quark, quark.” I look and see the two ravens flying by again, chasing each other. Ravens are playful creatures. They do the things they do because, that’s what ravens do. I assume they do what makes them happy.
I bring Erin up. As she crests the top, she is wild-eyed and exuberant. She flashes me a smile that lets me know. We both know why we do these things.